The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted along party lines, 9 to 8, on December 18 to pass lawyer Keith Harper’s nomination to become a U.S. representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, an ambassador-rank post that would call for him to address human rights issues around the world.
Harper is a Cherokee Nation citizen and a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend. He served on President Barack Obama’s transition team, has worked for the administration, and has been a major campaign finance bundler for the president.
Republicans on the committee heavily criticized 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 Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) says was meant to harass four Native Americans who appealed the Cobell settlement.
All of the Republicans on the committee voted against Harper’s nomination; Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) did not vote.
Many Native American organizations and tribes expressed their support for Harper to the committee. Much of this support noted that it would be a first to have a Native American in this position at the State Department.
"Mr. Harper is a well-qualified and historic nominee, he enjoys strong support including from within Indian country, and if confirmed, he would be the first U.S. Ambassador from a federally recognized tribe," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Indian Country Today Media Network after the vote.
Harper’s nomination now goes before the full Senate for consideration. The next procedural step, given the unanimous Republican objections in committee, is for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) to schedule floor debate on Harper’s nomination, since he will not be able to obtain unanimous consent by all the senators to approve it.
Senate floor time is precious, especially in the current partisan environment. Reid’s office has not yet said when floor time will be scheduled.
Under Senate rules, if Harper isn’t confirmed or rejected by the end of the year, the White House would have to resubmit his nomination in 2014, unless it decides to make a rare recess appointment, which, for him to get the post permanently, would require Harper to be approved by the Senate before the end of its next session.