WASHINGTON — Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan blocked a confirmation vote on a Pentagon nominee, demanding action from the Biden administration on a road project intended to access mining opportunities in Northwest Alaska.
For months, Sullivan has worked to stop a confirmation vote for Laura Taylor-Kale to be assistant secretary of defense for industrial base policy. Last Thursday, his efforts led to a debate with Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin on the Senate floor when Sullivan objected to advancing Taylor-Kale’s nomination.
Though Sullivan has said she is qualified for the job, he is stalling a confirmation vote on Taylor-Kale and another Defense Department nominee, Radha Iyengar Plumb, aiming to pressure the Biden administration to respond to his demands related to the Ambler Road project in Alaska.
If the Senate does not act on the nominees before adjourning, the nomination process would start over, according to Sullivan’s office.
On Dec. 15, Baldwin gave a speech on the Senate floor in support of Taylor-Kale, calling her “well-suited” with “significant professional experience” for the role. She also emphasized the value of having a fully staffed Defense Department.
“If we are serious about the role of the U.S. as a global competitor, we need a fully staffed and capable team managing the current and future needs of our military forces,” she said.
Baldwin then called to advance Taylor-Kale’s confirmation, and Sullivan objected.
“I am objecting because the Biden administration’s policies are completely at odds with the president’s public statements and my friend from Wisconsin’s statements about the need for an industrial policy and critical minerals that will help our military and help our economy,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan expressed frustration that the Biden administration halted progress on the Ambler Road project, a controversial 200-mile access road in Northwest Alaska to the so-called Ambler mining district. Developers, Alaska’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sullivan say the road would unlock access to critical minerals and create new jobs. Conservation groups and some tribes in the area have taken legal action to stop it, arguing the project endangers the environment and subsistence resources.
Though the Trump administration approved Ambler Road, the Interior Department in February moved to review the project, citing concerns over the analysis behind a federal right-of-way permit. Alaska’s congressional delegation decried the decision at the time and said it would slow a permitting that began under the Obama administration.
Sullivan in a floor speech last week said that on the same day the White House hosted a summit on critical minerals, they stalled the Ambler proposal, a critical mineral-rich project.
He said he will lift his hold on Taylor-Kale if the Interior Department identifies a timeline for completing a review of the Ambler Road project; allows Alaska entities working on the project to continue to complete baseline scientific data gathering and design work; and lets them complete planned geological drilling and core sampling.
“If the Secretary of Interior came and said, ‘Senator Sullivan, I saw your remarks on the floor, I agree with all three of those things, you’re right, they’re simple,’ I would lift my hold today,” Sullivan said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., drew a distinction between the Pentagon nominees and Sullivan’s requests from the Interior Department.
“This issue is not related to the Department of Defense, it is essentially the administration’s environmental policy,” Reed said. “I would hope that (Sullivan) would make the distinction between DOD personnel that are necessary — and he knows that, he’s a talented, professional Marine — and his concerns about environmental policy.”
The Interior Department declined to comment on Sullivan’s requests. The Defense Department declined to comment when Sullivan initiated the holds this summer, and did not respond to a more recent request for comment.
A White House spokesperson said in an August statement, “These nominees are well qualified to do their job and we’re hopeful the Senate will confirm them swiftly.”
Sullivan is not the only Republican senator to hold up Pentagon nominees’ confirmations. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri issued a blanket hold on all Pentagon nominees, demanding that top Biden administration officials resign for how they handled the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Hawley has since relaxed his demands, and some Defense Department nominees have been confirmed.
In response to Sullivan’s objection, Baldwin said she was “disappointed” Taylor-Kale’s confirmation could not proceed, and noted that if confirmed, Taylor-Kale would not be able to directly address Sullivan’s requests.
“In this case, the person who is being held could be doing so much to advance and grow our defense industrial base and helping improve our national security and resiliency, and this particular person is not in a position to resolve the issue that I heard my colleague describe,” Baldwin said on the Senate floor.