The Senate on Tuesday confirmed a controversial Obama administration nominee to represent the U.S. at the United Nations Human Rights Council, over Republican objections that the nominee is a fundraiser for President Barack Obama who has exhibited poor judgment on the issue of human rights.
The Senate voted 52-42 to confirm Keith Harper, who is the first Native American to ever hold the rank of U.S. ambassador.
But while Democrats played up Harper’s heritage, Republicans argued that Harper is one of a long list of unqualified nominees that Obama has picked to reward campaign fundraisers.
“Mr. Harper is another example of a campaign bundler wholly ill-suited to serve in the diplomatic post for which he has been nominated,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain said usually 30 percent of ambassadorships go to political appointees, but that’s up to 50 percent in Obama’s second term.
But aside from Harper’s lack of qualifications to represent the U.S. on human rights issues, McCain said Harper showed a lack of respect for human rights during his past work as a lawyer.
McCain explained that Harper was the lead class action attorney in the case Cobell v Salazar, which resulted in “one of the greatest mistreatments of Native Americans by the federal government in recent memory.”
That case dealt with land rights for Native Americans, and it resulted in a $3.4 billion settlement. But McCain said Harper and his legal team collected $99 million in attorney fees, and later sued the government for another $123 million.
McCain said the 500,000 class action litigants were due to receive about $1,000 each, and that prompted four Native Americans to challenge the settlement, including the large payout that the lawyers received.
McCain said Harper responded by writing to all 500,000 Native Americans saying the four plaintiffs were delaying the settlement.
“Here is the best part,” McCain said. “In the letter that was sent to 500,000 people, it said, ‘[if] you want to ask them directly about their motives, you should contact them at the following address or phone numbers.’ ”
“I hope my colleagues understand what was done there,” McCain said. “These four Native Americans received harassing calls, death threats, had their jobs threatened. One had to disconnect their phone. Another was essentially run off her reservation.”
“I would argue that those four Native Americans’ human rights were abused,” McCain said. “People such as Mr. Harper can’t be a party to or complicit with a letter attempting to harass Native Americans for exercising their rights and then expect to obtain the Senate’s imprimatur to serve as our Nation’s ambassador on human rights.”
McCain also criticized Democrats for bringing up such a controversial nominee who could not have passed under Senate rules that were in effect last year. In November, Senate Democrats changed Senate rules to allow executive branch nominees to advance with only a simple majority vote, instead of a super-majority of 60.
That change has allowed Democrats to advance any nomination they like, even without any Republican support. McCain has said before that the rule change has warped the Senate process, since Obama’s nominees no longer need to confer or seek common ground with Republicans at all.
“This is another example of a deprivation that is taking place of my right to advise and consent and that of every single member of the minority,” he said Monday after the Senate used the new rule to set up Harper’s final vote on Tuesday. “This nomination would not have come to this floor if we still required 60 votes.”