Senate Nomination Battle is a Preview of 2015

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.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) speaks during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee September 17, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) speaks during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee September 17, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate Republicans are previewing the lines of attack they’ll pursue in 2015 against President Barack Obama’s immigration, foreign policy and gun regulation policies during this week’s debate on executive-branch nominees.

Today, Republicans’ anger over Obama’s Nov. 20 order granting a temporary reprieve from deportation for undocumented immigrants translated into criticism of Sarah Saldana, Obama’s nominee to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Senate confirmed her 55-39.

Yesterday, the Senate confirmed surgeon general nominee Vivek Murthy, a physician who has called gun violence a public health issue, on a 51-43 vote amid opposition from Republicans and the National Rifle Association.

This evening, the Senate will vote on confirming Antony Blinken as deputy secretary of state, though incoming Armed Services Chairman John McCain said he’ll fight Blinken’s nomination on the floor. McCain has said that in hearings for defense secretary nominee Ashton Carter early next year he plans to highlight Obama’s “feckless foreign policy.”

In an interview today, McCain said Blinken is “the person who’s been wrong on every single issue.”

Incoming Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas is among the Republicans who said they would vote against Saldana’s confirmation, though he said she’s well qualified for the post.

‘Can’t Support’

“Based on her qualifications alone, we would be hard pressed to find a person better suited for the job,” Cornyn said of Saldana. “But if she is determined to help the president implement this deeply flawed executive action and refuses to enforce the law that Congress has written and has been signed by previous presidents, I can’t support her.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said in a statement, “Her experience will be valuable as we continue to work to fix our broken immigration system and implement President Obama’s executive action to keep families together.”

Republicans in January will take control of the Senate for the final two years of Obama’s presidency. In an attempt to install as many Obama’s choices for executive and judicial posts as possible before ceding control of the chamber, Reid has teed up votes this week on about two dozen nominees.

Under a rules change that Reid pushed through late last year, Democrats can approve all of the nominees by a simple majority vote, meaning none will need Republican support as Democrats now control 55 seats in the chamber. Republicans will control 54 seats starting in January.

Messaging Strategies

Instead, Republicans are using the debate time on the nominees to highlight their objections to Obama’s policies, showcasing their legislative and messaging strategies for the next session of Congress.

U.S. spending legislation passed by the Senate Dec. 13 funds most of the government through Sept. 30 though at Republicans’ insistence the Department of Homeland Security, which houses ICE, is funded only through Feb. 27. That will set up a showdown next year between a Republican-led Congress and the White House over Obama’s move to halt deportations.

Republicans say Obama’s move amounts to “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, and 22 party members in the Senate supported a Dec. 13 constitutional challenge to the spending measure raised by Ted Cruz of Texas.

Among the other nominees the Senate is scheduled to consider this week are Christopher Smith to be an assistant secretary of energy for fossil fuels and Colette Honorable to be a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Energy Policies

Republicans led by incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have criticized Obama’s energy polices, saying the administration is waging a “war on coal.” McConnell has vowed to use his power as majority leader to curb Environmental Protection Agency rules and force approval of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline.

Debate yesterday over Obama’s surgeon general nominee centered on Republican objections to what they termed Murthy’s political activism, namely his contention that gun violence is a public health issue.

“The majority of his career has been spent, not as a doctor treating patients but as an activist, an activist focused on gun control and political campaigns,” Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, a member of the Republican leadership and a physician, said yesterday on the Senate floor.

The Senate confirmed Murthy yesterday with just one Republican supporter: Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is seeking re-election next year in Obama’s Democratic-leaning home state.

Guns, NRA

Murthy is co-founder and president of Doctors for America, a group that advocates in favor of the Affordable Care Act. In an October 2012 posting on Twitter, he said politicians are “scared of NRA” and called guns a “health-care issue.”

In April 2013, the Senate rejected Obama-backed legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases.

McCain’s objections to Blinken rest on his comments on the U.S. policy in Iraq.

For five years Blinken “refused to answer simple and fundamental questions that I had for him, one of the architects of the quote ‘withdrawal from Iraq,’” McCain said. “I will be on the floor giving at least 20 of his quotes which had no relation whatsoever to the actual situation on the ground in Iraq.”

McCain also recalled his own predictions that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would lead to a resurgence in Islamic extremism in Iraq, parts of which are now controlled by Islamic State.

‘Dead Wrong’

“He was wrong, he was dead wrong,” McCain said. “He made many many statements particularly about Iraq and unfortunately thousands of people are dead now and parts of Iraq are now controlled by the deadly organization called ISIS. So I will be discussing this at length when it reaches the floor of the Senate.”

While McCain has said he supports Carter’s nomination for defense secretary, he’s announced plans to use that confirmation process to press some of the same criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy.

“I look forward to Dr. Carter’s confirmation hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee next year, which will provide a valuable opportunity to fully ventilate” concerns about the administration’s “feckless foreign policy,” McCain said in a Dec. 5 statement.

(A previous version of this story corrected the position to which Blinken was nominated.)

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