The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted along party lines again February 4 to approve lawyer Keith Harper’s nomination to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The vote was 10 – 8.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of his supporters, has previously noted the historic nature of this nomination because Harper, a Cherokee Nation citizen, would be the first tribal citizen of a federally recognized tribe to be a U.S. ambassador if confirmed by the full Senate. J. Chris Stevens, the former ambassador to Libya who was killed in the Benghazi attack at the U.S. consulate in September 2012, was a citizen of the Chinook Tribe, which is not federally recognized.
Last year, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) took the lead in questioning Harper’s human rights record involving Indian country. Harper was co-counsel during the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement with the Obama administration, and McCain questioned several of Harper’s leadership decisions involving that case and other tribal trust settlements.
McCain has said he has never received satisfactory answers from Harper that would allow him to vote affirmatively for the Kilpatrick Stockton lawyer, although Harper did submit answers to the committee in an effort to clear up some of the questions.
A Senate aide noted that McCain again spoke out against Harper’s nomination before the latest vote.
Indian support for Harper has been mixed, with individual tribal citizens who were negatively affected by issues stemming from the Cobell litigation providing letters to the committee asking for Harper to be denied, while several tribal leaders who have had positive interactions with Harper and his firm offered letters of support.
The Obama administration has strongly supported Harper, who was a major campaign finance bundler for the Obama campaigns for the president. He also served on the president’s transition team and worked in his administration as a member of the Commission on White House Fellowships.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, voted against the nomination, with his spokeswoman saying he has learned nothing new about Harper’s record that would allow him to vote in favor of his nomination. Barrasso has said that concerns from individual Indians who were affected by the Cobell legal team have played a role in his decision.
Democrats on the committee all supported Harper, as they did during a previous hearing on December 18, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) at that time did not allow the full Senate to vote on the nomination before time ran out due to the end-of-year holiday recess.
President Barack Obama chose to re-submit Harper’s nomination again in early January, even though some Indian country observers had speculated he might choose a safer candidate, given the Republican opposition to Harper.
Reid’s staff currently has no firm timeline for when the full Senate will take up Harper’s latest nomination, as they say there is already a long list of presidential nominees that need to be confirmed.