Sauerbrey's nomination to State post is opposed

Bush picked two-time candidate for Maryland governor for top refugee job

October 20, 2005|By GWYNETH K. SHAW | GWYNETH K. SHAW,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- A coalition of liberal women's groups wants the White House to withdraw the nomination of Ellen R. Sauerbrey to the top refugee post at the State Department, saying the former Maryland lawmaker and two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate is "utterly unqualified" for the job.

President Bush tapped Sauerbrey last month to be assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. Refugees International, an advocacy group, immediately condemned the choice, saying she lacks experience dealing with refugees or in coordinating responses to humanitarian emergencies.

"She has no experience in the humanitarian area," said June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women's Environment and Development Organization. "She has no experience in managing major programs."

Sauerbrey, 68, is scheduled to go before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. Even the most ardent opponents of the nomination said they believe she will be confirmed.

The alliance of 11 women's groups - most of them focused on abortion rights and civil rights - issued a strong statement against Sauerbrey and urged supporters to call the White House and senators to protest her nomination.

The groups include the Center for Health and Gender Equity, based in Takoma Park, as well as the Feminist Majority and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The coalition put out a list of reasons that Sauerbrey should not be confirmed that concluded with this statement: "She is a crony appointment who has neither the experience or the expertise to fill such an important post."

Refugee and women's advocates have tried to compare Sauerbrey - who was the state chairwoman for Bush's 2000 campaign but is not particularly close personally to the president - to Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers, the White House counsel, and former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown.

Kenneth H. Bacon, president of Refugees International, said his group is pressing senators to ask Sauerbrey about how she plans to fill out the gaps in her resume. But he said he gets the sense that her nomination is on a fast track to confirmation.

Sauerbrey, a staunch opponent of abortion rights, has been the U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women since January 2003. She served in the Maryland House of Delegates for 16 years, including eight as Republican leader, and was her party's nominee for governor in 1994 and 1998. Bush appointed her to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights early in his first term.

She could not be reached for comment last night. Typically, nominees for a presidentially appointed post do not speak publicly while they are under consideration by the Senate.

This year, Sauerbrey caused a stir at the United Nations when she pushed an administration proposal to amend a 1995 women's rights declaration to specify that achieving equality of the sexes did not include a right to abortion. That part of the amendment was later dropped, after opposition from other nations and outside advocacy groups.

The bureau she would oversee has an annual budget of about $1 billion, according to a State Department spokeswoman, and more than 100 employees.

Zeitlin, who watched the U.N. flap closely, called Sauerbrey's style "unilateralist" and not very effective. Women's groups are concerned that Sauerbrey's opposition to abortion rights could affect her policies on health care for refugees, including birth control. The vast majority of international refugees are women and children.

"Her stand has been antithetical to so much of what the U.N. stands for and is committed to, and so much of what women's groups have been pressing for," Zeitlin said. "We think it's another unqualified, unacceptable appointment that is thumbing the U.S.' nose at other countries."

White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said Bush has no intention of withdrawing Sauerbrey's nomination and took issue with the notion that she is not prepared for the job. Sauerbrey has addressed many of the issues she'll be faced with at the State Department, including working with refugees, during her experience with the U.N. organization, Healy said.

"The president believes she's well-qualified, and we encourage the Senate to move ahead," Healy said.

Much of the opposition to Sauerbrey has been behind the scenes because most of the nonprofit groups that work with refugees receive grant money from the State Department and the United Nations. But Zeitlin, and others working to oppose the nomination, said they are still hoping to have an impact.

"We think it's very important not to just kind of give up and let them hear from the people that agree with them, but let them know that other people are watching and they're going to express their opinion forcefully," Zeitlin said.

gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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