The Cable

Another Obama ambassadorial nominee held up indefinitely

Norm Eisen, President Obama's nominee for ambassador to the Czech Republic, joins the long list of State Department nominees facing opposition in the Senate, and the path forward for his nomination is unclear at best.

Eisen, who left his post as White House ethics czar in August, is being held up by Finance Committee ranking Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IO) over alleged actions and misrepresentations related to the June 2009 removal of Gerald Walpin as Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a position where he oversaw government programs such as AmeriCorps.

Walpin's firing raised controversy due to claims that his investigations into CNCS activities attracted the ire of the Justice Department and others, which allegedly pressured the White House to fire him. Walpin sued the White House for wrongful termination, but his lawsuit was thrown out.

Eisen was a key figure in the controversy and defended the White House's actions. He also made the case to Congress that Walpin was unfit for his position, writing in a letter to senators shortly after the sacking that Walpin "was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the Board to question his capacity to serve." Walpin called those allegations "absolutely amazing."

Grassley, along with Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), have never dropped the issue of Walpin's firing. In November, Grassley's shop contributed heavily to a joint House-Senate report released last November they say shows not only that Walpin's firing was handled improperly, but also that Eisen misled Congress about the matter.

"Eisen claimed the President's decision to remove Walpin was the result of a thorough review of his performance and fitness to continue serving as Inspector General.  No such evidence exists.  Eisen claimed Walpin's removal was unanimously supported by the CNCS Board.  The investigation shows the White House spoke with only two of nine board members," a release about the report stated.

Shortly after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Eisen's nomination on Sept. 21, sending it to the Senate floor for consideration, Grassley made his opposition known.

"I object to the proceeding to the nomination because of Mr. Eisen's role in the firing of the inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service, CNCS, and his lack of candor about that matter when questioned by congressional investigators," Grassley said in a statement entered into the Congressional record.

Inside the Foreign Relations Committee, Republicans James Risch (R-ID) and John Barrasso (R-WY) voted no. Grassley's office didn't offer any terms under which the administration would be able to move forward the Eisen nomination.

Eisen joins a growing list of ambassadorial nominations that seem to be gathering dust in the Senate. Due to holds, the nominees for ambassador to Turkey (Frank Ricciardone), Syria (Robert Ford), and Azerbaijan (Matthew Bryza) are all awaiting Senate floor action.

For Bryza, his nomination is being held up by two Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who are seen to be representing the Armenian voting constituencies unhappy with the administration's policy opposing a Congressional resolution condemning the 1915 Armenian genocide.

"It's the policy of this administration to oppose the genocide resolution, as has been the case for past administrations," pointed out one GOP senate staffer who supports the nomination. "It's not his job to make this policy. Putting him in a position to oppose his own administration's policy would get him fired."

The staffer pointed to a 2008 letter to Bryza from then Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian praising the Bryza for being "honest brokers" and "fair mediators" as evidence that Bryza could be effective there. But one of the problems is that the Obama administration isn't pressing the nomination using its top-level political staff.

"They've worked it as best they can through the bureaucracy but it seems to be the political calculus that it's not worth weighing in at higher levels until after the elections," the aide said.

The same lack of pressure is felt by some of the 12 GOP Senate offices that are holding up Ford, a diplomat everyone says is more than qualified for the post. Republicans want the administration to publicly articulate its current view regarding the progress of its Syria policy, but they say they aren't getting any attention on the matter from the administration.

"They've tried nothing. The White House hasn't reached out to anyone or tried to move him at all," one senior GOP staffer said about the Ford nomination.

Ford probably has the best chance of getting through, as opposed to Ricciardone, who is being held up by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) over concerns with Ricciardone's tenure as U.S. ambassador to Egypt.

"It would take [the Obama administration] demonstrating that they have a Syria policy to get Ford through," said the GOP aide. "On Ricciardone, they just have to withdraw him and appoint somebody different."

The Senate adjourned for their pre-election break last week. Normally, if senators are out of town for more than 30 days, nominations would have be resubmitted and go through the committee process all over again. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) avoided that by keeping the Senate in "pro forma" session through the break (knocking the gavel ceremoniously every few days). That tactic has the collateral effect of preventing Obama from installing the nominees as "recess appointments."

Therefore, unless Reid agrees to file for cloture on the nomination and push for 60 Senate votes, the process will stall. Reid isn't likely to take the time to push forward the nominations in the brief lame duck sessions post election, so Eisen, Ford, Ricciardone, and Bryza probable shouldn't pack their bags until at least next year.

The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Viktor Bout,

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Tuesday's briefing by spokesman P.J. Crowley:

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikloay Mladenov Tuesday to discuss the upcoming Lisbon NATO summit, the Western Balkans, and Afghanistan.
  • The State Department is not pleased with the plans of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit southern Lebanon and throw rocks at Israeli soldiers along the border. "I don't normally recommend travel arrangements for President Ahmadinejad. We certainly would hope that Iran would play a constructive role in the region. Throwing stones, whether they are literal or figurative -- I would not consider constructive," Crowley said. "We did say to Lebanese officials, you know, [Iran] is a country that is actively undermining your government."
  • Crowley rejected remarks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the Middle East peace talks were only there to serve President Obama's domestic political interests. "The pursuit of peace in the Middle East is in everyone's interest, including Syria's. We're not trying to score points with anyone; we're trying to end a conflict," said Crowley.
  • Crowley wouldn't confirm reports that the U.S. is pushing for a government in Iraq where former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi would become a figurehead president and current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would retain his position. "First of all, we're not picking any winners, you know, in this. We don't have any favorite candidates for any office," said Crowley. "That said, we believe that all four winning blocs, including Iraqiya and State of Law and others, should be able to play a role in the new government."
  • No word if there has been progress in the talk in Sudan over how to conduct the January referendum in Abyei. Special Envoy Scott Gration and Ambassador Princeton Lyman, as well as U.N. Representative Susan Rice are there. "The talks continue today, and they're likely to continue tomorrow. We believe that the parties are engaging frankly on the substance," Crowley said. As for the overall referendum preparations, he said, "The preparations are behind schedule, but we think, through an agreement and rapid action, a successful referendum can still occur on time."
  • Merchant of Death Viktor Bout is still in Thailand fighting extradition to the United States but a court ruling in Bankok Tuesday may signal that the final hurdle has been conquered. "There's a kind of a procedural period of time following today's ruling," Crowley said. "But we look forward to having Viktor Bout in a prison near us very soon."
  • Ambassador Eric Goosby announced that the Obama administration intends to seek $4 billion for the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis for the years 2011 through 2013. "This pledge is a 30-percent increase in the U.S. investment over the preceding three-year period," Crowley said, acknowledging that the money still has to be appropriated. "It is our commitment that we will seek this funding from the Congress in each of these years."
  • Registration opened Tuesday for 2012 diversity visa lottery program, which gives away 50,000 green cards to lucky immigrants from countries with low immigration rates. Anyone can enter from now until November 3, just sign up here. "This is the first year that the entire process is electronic, including notification of selected applicants," Crowley said. So if you are in a country where internet is scarce, you are out of luck.