Senate sources have confirmed that lawyer Keith Harper’s nomination to become a human rights ambassador with the State Department is off – for now, at least – as the Senate did not move on his nomination before its holiday recess. President Barack Obama must now decide whether he wants to submit the nomination again in 2014.
There was an effort by Senate Democrats to move on a number of presidential nominees before the holiday recess, but Republicans threatened delay tactics that would have forced Democrats to stay in session longer, cutting into their break.
Given that scenario, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) reached an agreement with Republicans late on December 19 to proceed with a few non-controversial nomination votes on December 20. Harper was not included.
Reid was under pressure to not move on Harper’s nomination, Senate sources said, since the vote out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on December 18 was so close, with Harper passing narrowly, 9 to 8. No Republicans, including U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs vice-chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), voted for him.
The Republicans also would not agree to hold over pending nominees, including Harper, into next year, effectively ending this round of Harper’s nomination process.
Beyond controversies involving Harper, Senate Democratic staffers noted that Republicans have been generally slowing down the president’s nominations for various positions.
If the president wants to proceed with Harper, he will have to resubmit his nomination in 2014. It’s unlikely the president would decide to make a rare recess appointment in this case, which would require Harper to be approved by the Senate before the end of its next session or vacate the post. Shin Inouye, a spokesman for the White House, says the president remains committed to Harper's nomination.
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) took the lead in opposing Harper, saying his work during the recent Cobell settlement and some other tribal trust lawsuits was problematic partly due to a letter sent by the Cobell counsel that McCain says was meant to harass four Native Americans who appealed the Cobell settlement.
Mary Lee Johns, one of the Native American appellants referenced in that letter, told Indian Country Today Media Network she was glad the Senate took this route. “Fantastic,” she said upon learning of the postponement, adding that she hopes the president does not resubmit Harper’s nomination to become the first Native American ambassador at the State Department.
In a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Johns described several issues she has had with Harper; Senate sources said her letter and other concerns from Native Americans about his nomination were influential with Republicans. Johns said in her letter that the Cobell counsel intimidated several objectors to the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement, and she said the overall agreement was not transparent.
Kimberly Craven and Carol Good Bear, two of the other Native American referenced in the problematic Cobell counsel letter, also voiced concerns to the committee. At the same time, several tribes and Indian organizations – many that have worked with Harper and his firm – sent their support for Harper to the committee.
Harper, a Cherokee Nation citizen and a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend, has served on Obama’s transition team, has worked for the administration, and has been a major campaign finance bundler for the president.