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.