Senate confirms one ambassador, blocks another

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. ambassadors on the verge of being forced to return home met opposite outcomes on Monday, as the Senate voted to block one and allow the other to continue serving in his post.

The new U.S. ambassador to El Salvador Mari Carmen Aponte poses on arrival at the international airport in Comalapa, about 43 miles (69 km) south of San Salvador, September 26, 2010. REUTERS/Oscar Rivera

President Barack Obama’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, fell 11 votes short of the 60 she needed to break through Republican opposition.

The nominee for U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, Norman Eisen, succeeded in a similar procedural vote, 70-16. The Senate then confirmed Eisen, best known for rattling Washington lobbyists in a previous administration job, on a voice vote.

Both Eisen and Aponte have served as ambassadors since last year, when Obama bypassed the regular confirmation process with appointments during Senate recesses. Aponte’s appointment is set to expire this month, while Eisen will stay in Prague.

The Aponte vote was the third time in a week that Senate Republicans have used a procedural tactic known as a filibuster to block a presidential appointment. A filibuster is rare, but it was also used to hold up a nominee for a judgeship as well as Obama’s choice to head a new consumer-protection agency.

In opposing Aponte, Republicans said there are unresolved questions about whether Cuban intelligence officials tried to recruit her as a spy in the 1990s. Democrats said the FBI cleared her of any wrongdoing.

Eisen became a polarizing figure among Washington insiders soon after Obama took office. From January 2009 until his recess appointment a year ago, he was the White House special counsel tasked with dampening what Obama called the outsized influence of lobbyists.

Among the policies Eisen enforced was a general ban on people serving in the administration if they had registered as lobbyists within the past two years. Another rule barred lobbyists from serving on federal boards and commissions.

“Naturally, Norm was always the one telling people what they could not do, and that won him no friends,” said Craig Holman, who supported Eisen and is a lobbyist with the consumer group Public Citizen.

Republican Senator Charles Grassley held up Eisen’s nomination because of a separate issue: his involvement in the removal of another government official.

Eisen pushed for the resignation of Gerald Walpin, who had been inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Grassley said Eisen violated U.S. law setting out a process for removing an inspector general and then misled congressional investigators.

“Word games and evasiveness of that sort are incompatible with being a forthcoming witness and ought to be incompatible with representing the United States as an ambassador,” Grassley said in a Senate speech.

In a letter to Grassley last month, Eisen apologized for answering questions “inaccurately” during a June 2009 meeting but wrote that he did not intend to mislead Congress about Walpin, who was eventually removed.

Reporting By David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller