Biden’s secretary of state nominee has clashed with Florida’s Marco Rubio over Cuba

David Smiley

Over the objections of Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Antony Blinken won the blessing of the Senate in 2014 as second-in-command at the Department of State under then-President Barack Obama.

Six years later, if Blinken is to become the top diplomat in the country under Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, it looks like he’ll need to buck Rubio once again.

Biden’s transition team on Monday announced that the former vice president intends to nominate Blinken for the role of secretary of state, a position that requires confirmation by a simple-majority vote of the U.S. Senate. In 2014, when Democrats held the Senate, Blinken was confirmed as deputy secretary of state by a 55-38 vote that largely followed party lines.

It’s still unclear which party will control the Senate in 2021, when Biden will be sworn in as president. But it seems likely that Blinken — a 58-year-old longtime Biden adviser on issues of diplomacy and national security — will face a more contentious nomination process for secretary of state than he did six years earlier as the agency’s deputy.

Rubio’s office wouldn’t answer questions Monday about the senator’s position on Blinken’s nomination. But Rubio, who is Cuban American, was plenty critical of Blinken’s answers in 2014 when Rubio pressed him during a confirmation hearing on whether Obama would “unilaterally” move to lift sanctions on Cuba.

“Anything that might be done in Cuba would have to be consistent with the law,” Blinken, at the time Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said while appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And second, anything that in the future that might be done in Cuba would be done in real consultation” with the committee.

A few weeks later, Blinken was confirmed by the Senate as deputy secretary of state. And the very next day, Obama announced that he’d ordered the State Department to establish an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century. He also moved to ease restrictions on travel, remittances and commerce on the island.

When Blinken appeared before the foreign relations committee again in 2015, Rubio reminded him of his commitment, reading aloud Blinken’s previous statement on Cuba.

“I did not live up to the standard I set during that hearing and in the remarks that you just quoted. I think that I could have done a better job in engaging with you and consulting with you in advance,” Blinken told Rubio. “And I regret that.”

Though Rubio’s office wouldn’t comment for this article, a spokesman did refer the Miami Herald to remarks Rubio made during a Nov. 18 interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. Rubio, during the interview, suggested he would give Biden’s nominees a shot to explain their views of their proposed posts before choosing whether to oppose or support them. However, Rubio also predicted that Biden would have a more difficult time confirming Cabinet secretaries than Obama, given the contentiousness that surrounded President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees.

“There’s no way that Biden nominations are going to be treated like they traditionally have been treated under previous presidents simply because the atmosphere in the Senate has changed,” Rubio said, “and frankly, because of the way the Democrats have just been so unfair during the Trump years on some of these nominees that they simply oppose them because the president is for them.”

A spokeswoman for Florida’s other U.S. senator, Republican Rick Scott, told the Miami Herald that Scott, following the certification of results from the 2020 presidential election, would “review each potential nominee’s background and qualifications, including whether they plan to stand up to our adversaries around the world, such as communist China and Iran.”

Blinken isn’t the only Biden nominee for a Cabinet position for whom Cuba is an issue. Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, was born in Havana.

“When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge,” Mayorkas tweeted Monday afternoon. “Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.”