Washington Post reporters Ed O’Keefe and Carol Morello looked into what led Sen. Marco Rubio to release his 11-month hold on confirmation of Roberta Jacobson to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Here’s what they found:
WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmation of a new U.S. ambassador to Mexico was a seemingly straightforward matter, but it took weeks of complex backroom dealing involving two key senators, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, former rivals in the Republican presidential primaries who had been blocking her for months.
Almost 11 months to the day after Roberta Jacobson was nominated by President Barack Obama as the new ambassador in Mexico City, a post vacant for almost as long as her name had been in play, a logjam was broken when the Senate finally confirmed her Thursday April 28.
After Rubio exited the presidential race, White House and Republican leaders asked him what he wanted in return for dropping his opposition to Jacobson, a career Foreign Service officer who is highly regarded. That set off a round of bargaining that seemed designed to keep government printers in business for years to come.
As part of the deal, the State Department will have to produce 40 new reports a year on issues as diverse as Hong Kong autonomy, religious freedom and anti-Semitism. Government officials in Venezuela will face three more years of sanctions.
Security upgrades at U.S. embassies around the world will be mandated, including in war-torn countries such as Syria and Yemen, where there is no U.S. diplomatic presence now. U.S. diplomats at the United Nations will have to work to end sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers. And there will be a new push in Congress to rename the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington for a prominent Chinese dissident.
Because of partisan differences, at one point more than 30 of President Obama’s nominees to be ambassadors were snagged there. With Jacobson’s confirmation, only nine are awaiting confirmation by the full Senate, while five are waiting to be voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Jacobson’s process was particularly complicated, the Washington Post reports, citing accounts outlined by Senate and White House aides, speaking about the negotiations on the condition of anonymity.
Although an important neighbor, Mexico has lacked a U.S. ambassador since last July. Last November, Rubio placed a hold on Jacobson to register his objections to the Obama administration’s Cuba policy.
As the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Jacobson had been integral in normalizing U.S. ties with Cuba last year — a diplomatic feat opposed by Rubio, a Cuban American.
White House and Republican leaders who supported Jacobson sensed an opening in early April when Rubio, fresh from his defeat in the GOP primary, returned to the Senate. They approached him and asked what it would take for him to lift his hold.
Rubio agreed to clear the way if he got an extension of a 2014 law he co-sponsored imposing sanctions on Venezuelan government officials for alleged human rights violations.
Although the White House quickly agreed to keep the sanctions in place another three years, that posed a problem in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, through which the sanctions legislation would have to pass. Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, was eager for a State Department authorization bill — something the department had gone without for four years. Such bills are vehicles that allow Congress to outline programs and set priorities in foreign policy, instead of leaving it all to the executive branch.
But Cruz had placed a hold on the 2016 authorization bill for the State Department, registering his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal negotiated in large part by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
The bill that Cruz was holding up included seven proposals by Rubio. Among those Rubio items were requirements that State train Foreign Service officers on the value of religious freedom, and produce reports on anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity at the United Nations, on U.S. aid to Haiti and on U.S. support for the Venezuelan people.
To grease the skids, Rubio got Cruz to agree to drop his hold. But in exchange, Cruz made Rubio promise to help push a Cruz bill held up in the House to rename the street in front of the Chinese Embassy the Liu Xiaobo Plaza, after a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is imprisoned in China. China has objected to the renaming of the street as a humiliation, and the Obama administration has said the president will veto any legislation requiring the name change.
But in the Senate, the conditions were in place to get an ambassador. On Thursday night, by a unanimous consent vote, the Senate confirmed Jacobson, passed a State Department authorization bill for 2016 and extended Venezuela sanctions for three years, angering the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
Another State Department authorization bill for 2017 was voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That bill would require the United States to use its influence at the United Nations to counter sexual exploitation by peacekeepers in the countries where they are deployed. It also would set a floor for wages paid to local hires at U.S. embassies around the world and establish a structure for passport and visa fees so that any excess money can be returned to the Treasury.
“There are several versions of authorization bills pending, and we look forward to working with Congress on a final version that enables the State Department to function effectively,” said Elizabeth Trudeau, a spokeswoman at State.
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