Politics
5:14 am
Thu July 17, 2014

Kerry Accuses Senate Of Hobbling American Diplomacy

Originally published on Thu July 17, 2014 11:09 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, this next story grows out of the Separation of Powers Clause of the Constitution. The document says the president nominates ambassadors who take office with the advice and consent of the Senate. In many cases, President Obama's choices have not received Senate consent.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The administration has complained about the strategic effect of so many unfilled posts abroad. There's also a personal cost. More than 50 diplomats are awaiting confirmation.

INSKEEP: Most are not the kinds of presidential friends and allies who sometimes get choice diplomatic posts. Mostly, they are career foreign service officers - careers now on hold. NPR's Michele Kelemen caught up with some of them.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It's been a tough year for Eric Schultz's family of four. They were planning to move from Ukraine to Zambia last summer. And he was excited to become an ambassador for the first time in his more than 25-year career. But he's stuck in a confirmation backlog, and they just got word that they have to find another temporary apartment in Northern Virginia.

ERIC SCHULTZ: The building that we're in decided that they wanted to rent the apartment on an annual basis. And we can't commit to an annual lease because theoretically we could be leaving tomorrow.

KELEMEN: He says it's been hardest on his boys, who are 12 and 9. All their stuff is in storage, and he remembers talking to them at the start of the school year last year. The older one didn't want to make friends it would be hard to leave. The younger one told him he had friends and no longer wanted to go to Africa.

SCHULTZ: We had a - sort of a family meeting that evening, where we said, you know, carpe diem. You've just got to live this day a day at a time. I mean, there's - we have no control over this situation. By all means, make friends. Try to get what you can out of this.

KELEMEN: The nominee to become ambassador to Albania, Donald Lu, has a similar tale. He, his wife and two children had just four suitcases when they came to Washington from New Delhi last summer.

DONALD LU: Throughout the fall, we kept on thinking we were about to leave. So we were reluctant to buy a whole wardrobe of clothing. So we'd just sort of piecemeal - every week buy another layer. We'd buy a sweater. We'd buy a jacket and hats and gloves.

KELEMEN: His children started school in Virginia but kept expecting to move.

LU: My son was funny. He said several times last year, oh, do you think we're leaving by, you know, end of this month? - because I really want to miss my math test or my, you know, English essay deadline. They've been good sports.

KELEMEN: But if he's not confirmed soon, the children won't be able to start the new school year in Albania. His wife, a public health specialist, also hasn't been able to work. Republicans and Democrats blame each other for the backlog. Last year, Majority Leader Harry Reid changed the Senate rules, and Republicans fought back. Reid says career government employees shouldn't have their lives disrupted by this political squabble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY REID: Who are the Republicans hurting? They're not hurting me. Is this some payback for me?

KELEMEN: A spokesman for Republican Mitch McConnell says it is Reid who sets the schedule, and the Senate is moving nominees on a regular and sustained basis and according to White House priorities. The ambassadors to Egypt and Iraq, for instance, move through in just a couple of months. Donald Lu, hoping to head to Albania, used his year in limbo in language training. He says others are not as lucky.

LU: For those colleagues who haven't had language to fall back on, it's been really hard because for many of them, they're just sitting around in offices trying to fill their time doing odd jobs in the State Department.

KELEMEN: Eric Schultz says he's pitched in where he can on the crisis in Ukraine, but he really wants to go to Zambia and get to work.

SCHULTZ: The Russians have an expression, you know. (Russian spoken). Right? So you're sitting on your suitcases, waiting to go. That's basically what we've been doing for a year.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen. NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.