Two Women, Two Ambassadorships: A Senate Confirmation Primer


How long would you wait to be approved for a coveted job as an ambassador to represent the United States overseas? Three months, six months, a year—or two?  

If you’re Callista Gingrich, the third wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), there wasn’t much of a wait to be confirmed to be U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Gingrich, who served as a staffer on the House Agriculture Committee during her husband’s tenure as leader, was nominated by President Donald Trump in late May and waited less than five months before the Senate confirmed her to the post.  

Gingrich

By Senate standards, Gingrich’s nomination flew through the chamber after being officially transmitted on May 25. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the nomination July 18 and reported it on July 27. The Senate then took a month-long recess but by Oct. 2 Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) undertook the first moves to confirm her on the floor, winning Democratic support to proceed to the nomination and waive rules that would have slowed action.

When a final vote came on Oct. 16 more than 20 Democrats voted to confirm her. After the 70-23 vote Gingrich was headed to Rome.  

But not all nominees for key posts fare as well. Some of former President Barack Obama’s nominees waited for the better part of two years for confirmation before their names were returned to the White House at the end of his term.  

Take the case of Cassandra Butts, a Harvard-educated lawyer and domestic policy expert, who was nominated by Obama in 2014 to serve as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas. Earlier, she served as deputy White House counsel in his administration.  

Butts had a hearing at the Foreign Relations Committee in May of 2014 and was approved soon after. But she was still waiting for McConnell to schedule her confirmation vote when she unexpectantly died in June of 2016.  

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said McConnell wrongly honored a secret ``hold” placed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on the nomination as he pursued an unrelated grievance with Obama.  

"Sen. Cotton held her, sadly, until she died. That was a disaster and he had no objection to her,” said Durbin, who voted against the Gingrich nomination. 

Cotton’s office acknowledged that the senator placed the hold not because of the nominee’s qualifications but in response to what it said was the Obama administration’s failure to adequately address the Secret Service’s leak of personal information about former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). The Secret Service announced in May 2016—the month before Butts died—that more than 40 employees were disciplined in the matter. 

But a spokeswoman said that Cotton didn’t place the hold until October of 2015, or about six months before the nominee’s death. 

"Clearly other forces were at play in delaying her nomination,” the spokeswoman said.