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Major embassies are without ambassadors, as Republicans block Biden's picks

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's like pulling teeth to get U.S. ambassadors approved by the Senate. Those were the words today of the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Some Republicans have been holding up nominees over foreign policy disputes they have with the Biden administration. Even noncontroversial career diplomats are caught up in this, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Today's Foreign Relations Committee business meeting did get some work done. Fourteen nominations, including Biden's picks to serve as ambassadors in China and Japan, will now advance to the Senate floor, where a vote is uncertain. The business meeting turned sour as the chairman, Robert Menendez, faced off with Republican Ted Cruz.

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TED CRUZ: You are interrupting me.

ROBERT MENENDEZ: I know you want to do this for your YouTube, for your president.

CRUZ: You are interrupting me, OK?

KELEMEN: The two men are at odds not only about certain candidates but about the entire process. The Texas Republican has delayed action on all nominees, though he lifted his hold for former senators to become ambassadors, including Tom Udall and Jeff Flake and on Cindy McCain, the widow of Senator John McCain. Career diplomats and other political appointees don't get the same courtesy from Cruz.

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CRUZ: I don't hide remotely from the fact that I have a hold on State Department nominees. And I have a hold for a specific reason that every member of this committee knows exactly what it is. And it is that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are defying federal law. They are brazenly and unapologetically defying federal law to benefit Russia and Putin on Nord Stream 2.

KELEMEN: Cruz was furious that the Biden administration did not impose sanctions on the German company building Nord Stream 2, a pipeline which will supply Russian natural gas. He's also angry with the responses he received from the State Department on issues ranging from Egypt to Iran. Senator Menendez says one minority member of the Senate should not be in a position to dictate foreign policy to the executive branch.

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MENENDEZ: Well, I've seen casting votes to suggest what that policy should be, but I have never seen the hostage taking of career nominees in order to achieve them.

KELEMEN: That was echoed by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat of New Hampshire, who is worried that so many key national security positions remain empty over this dispute.

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JEANNE SHAHEEN: Senator Cruz and I agree on Nord Stream 2. But the fact is what is happening now is inhibiting the ability of the United States of America to do its work.

KELEMEN: By this time in the Trump administration, nearly 40 ambassadors had been confirmed by the Senate. The Biden administration has achieved only a handful. His nominees to be ambassadors all over the world, from Israel to Madagascar, are languishing. That means nearly half of America's embassies abroad currently don't have Senate-confirmed ambassadors, according to Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association.

ERIC RUBIN: And you can say, well, other countries understand. And my answer would be no, they don't. It's insulting. It's a sign of disrespect and lack of interest and lack of commitment.

KELEMEN: Rubin says he's never seen the system this broken. There are some career officials nominated by the Trump administration still waiting for a vote. Not a single career diplomat named by President Biden has been approved by the Senate. But he doesn't only blame senators for this dysfunction.

RUBIN: We're concerned as well that about one-third of the jobs don't have nominees, and that's on the administration. That's not on the Senate. That's not about the holds that have been put on nominees. It's time to nominate candidates for every job.

KELEMEN: Rubin calls this a matter of national interest.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.