One Shaheen Moment

New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen.
New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen. Photo: Sarah Silbiger-Pool/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
May 16, 2023

On Wednesday, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen finally accomplished what she had been trying to do for 18 months: she confirmed the appointment of Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta, who was nominated by Joe Biden to lead the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues all the way back in November of 2021. The office, which is supposed to make sure that the empowerment of women and girls around the world is part of U.S. foreign policy, was first headed by Melanne Verveer, a veteran member of the Clinton White House and a longtime friend and aide to Hillary. Back in 1995, the First Lady famously declared, at the U.N.’s World Congress on Women, held that year in Beijing, that “women’s rights are human rights.”

Gupta, a Ph.D., has a long track record of working on HIV/AIDS and on women’s specific vulnerability to infection. She had served at the U.N. and as a deputy director of UNICEF. And yet, Gupta’s nomination got stuck in the Senate so long that it had to be returned to the president’s desk—twice. (This is standard operating procedure: a nominee who has neither been confirmed nor rejected by the end of a session, or after a long recess, has to be renominated to be considered for the position.) 

As I reported last fall, the Biden administration’s foreign policy was a bit hamstrung by the fact that more than 20 percent of America’s ambassadorial posts were still unfilled. For many of those positions, as well as those of political nominees at State, the issue came down to being stuck in Senate purgatory. Many didn’t even make it out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans until the 2020 midterms gave Democrats an outright majority in the chamber. This allowed the committee’s Republicans to block Biden’s nominees—or to demand specific concessions from the administration in exchange for releasing their hold. It resulted in unprecedented political hostage-taking for even the most routine nominees.