Secretary of State Antony Blinken told senior State Department staff he’s determined to improve ties with Congress that were strained under his predecessor, even as new disputes brew over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the Iran nuclear deal and China policy.
In a Feb. 16 letter to senior staff, Blinken said “responsiveness to Congress is our way of doing business and the department must meet requests promptly.”
He demanded embassies assign “an experienced control officer anytime lawmakers or staff visit” -- though such trips often provoke eyerolls among diplomats who consider them a waste of time.
“The Department’s work with Congress has to be seen as an opportunity, and not a burden,” Blinken wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Bloomberg News. “We will work with them on a bipartisan basis, and we will endeavor to keep politics out of what we do. I know I can count on you to make this happen.”
The email echoes a pledge Blinken made during his confirmation hearing and is aimed at improving a relationship that sunk to new lows under President Donald Trump. Then-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo refused to cooperate with congressional subpoenas over the Ukraine impeachment inquiry and made no effort to hide his loathing for New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Pompeo also once refused to testify before the Senate because he thought lawmakers weren’t approving his nominees quickly enough. And he provoked outrage for bypassing congressional opposition in approving the sale of more than $8 billion in weapons to Middle Eastern nations.
Already, tensions are brewing with the new administration. Biden’s team is a day late on delivering a report to Congress that’s supposed to list all the entities involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Under the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, the US must sanction vessels helping lay the pipeline -- as well as insurers of the ships undertaking the work.
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Four lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked for a briefing on Nord Stream 2 in a letter to Blinken on Wednesday. The two Democrats and two Republicans said the pipeline “would enable the Putin regime to further weaponize Russia’s energy resources to exert political pressure throughout Europe.”
A person familiar with the letter said the lawmakers sent it because the State Department had ignored several requests for a briefing.
The State Department plans to send the Nord Stream 2 report within a few days, two people familiar with the matter said. The people, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, said the Biden team needed more time to come up with a complete view of who was violating the sanctions. They noted that it’s been routine for decades for such reports to be late.
Republicans and some Democrats on the Hill have also hammered the Biden administration over its intention to go back into the Iran nuclear deal and for what they believe is a weaker approach to the threat posed by China.
Improving relations with Congress is smart politics given that the Senate must confirm dozens of nominees for top State Department posts and ambassadors around the world.
In part to defuse tensions, Blinken named a well-known Democratic Senate staffer, Naz Durakoglu, to run the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs until a Senate-approved nominee is in place. Durakoglu was a top national security aide to New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who worked on key issues such as relations with Turkey and a mysterious illnesses that afflicted American diplomats in Cuba.
“I plan to take the State Department’s message directly to the American people, explaining how the work we do around the world benefits communities back at home,” Blinken wrote in his letter. “I see Congressional members and staff as vital partners in helping us get this important message out to their constituents.”