Sauerbrey faces tough questions from senators

Despite doubts about her qualifications, Md. GOP figure likely to win State Dept. job


WASHINGTON -- She's about to go before the Senate for confirmation hearings that could prove rocky, particularly over the emotional issue of abortion. The White House staunchly praises her work on behalf of President Bush. Critics call her unqualified and claim that Bush nominated her to reward a loyal, longtime supporter.

Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers? No. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who was tapped last month for a high-level State Department job.

For almost three decades in public life, Sauerbrey has been many things: Republican leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, twice candidate for governor, state chairwoman of Bush's 2000 campaign, and the U.S. envoy on women's issues to the United Nations.

Today, she goes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as Bush's pick for the top State Department post overseeing refugee and population issues.

Opponents of her nomination want to know what, exactly, qualifies her for the job.

Despite the criticism, Sauerbrey is expected to win confirmation with little difficulty.

If so, she would become a leading voice of the U.S. government on an array of refugee and humanitarian emergencies around the globe, from the long-running civil war in Sudan to the recent catastrophic earthquake in Kashmir.

Her job, as assistant secretary of state and head of the bureau of population, refugees and migration, would put her in charge of an annual budget of roughly $1 billion and more than 100 employees, some of them overseas.

The White House has staunchly defended Sauerbrey's credentials, saying the two jobs she has held in the administration involved extensive work in some of the same areas she would be responsible for at the State Department.

"I would say that the president nominates well-qualified, well-respected individuals to serve in his administration, and Ellen Sauerbrey is certainly well-qualified," White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said.

Advocates for refugees and women's health, though, see parallels between Sauerbrey and Michael Brown, who had little experience managing natural disasters before taking over the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Brown resigned last month, after being castigated for presiding over a slow and inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina.

"This is as close to Michael Brown, in many ways, that you could get because, in effect, we are talking about the FEMA of international refugee crisis management," said Jodi L. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, a Takoma Park-based women's health group that is part of a coalition of nonprofit organizations opposed to Sauerbrey's confirmation.

"In practical terms, she has as little experience overseeing these humanitarian crises as he did overseeing the type of work that FEMA does," she said. "There are so many parallels here that it's really frightening."

Advocacy groups have also drawn comparisons to two other controversial nominees: Supreme Court candidate Miers, Bush's top lawyer at the White House, and Julie Myers, nominated to be the next head of customs and immigration at the Department of Homeland Security.

Both have been scrutinized over what critics call a lack of solid credentials for their jobs and their close connections to the administration.

Sauerbrey is currently the U.S. envoy to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women; earlier in the Bush administration, she served on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

A Baltimore native, Sauerbrey is best known in Maryland for her 16 years in the House of Delegates - eight of them as Republican leader - and her two failed bids for governor, in 1994 and 1998. She quit electoral politics after her second loss to Parris N. Glendening but remained active in the state party. She headed Bush's first campaign in the state.

At the United Nations, Sauerbrey has occasionally been a polarizing figure. Earlier this year, she scrapped with representatives from other nations over her advocacy of an amendment to a 1995 women's rights declaration that would have stipulated that achieving equal rights for women did not include a right to abortion. The effort was eventually dropped, for lack of support, but the squabble made headlines.

Publicly and privately, Jacobson and other activists have pressed senators on the committee to question Sauerbrey closely about her credentials and policy ideas. Some are especially concerned about her ardent opposition to abortion rights - a position, they said, that could affect how the U.S. deals with the reproductive health needs of refugees, who are overwhelmingly women and children.

Earlier this month, the New York Times editorialized against her confirmation, under the headline "Inexpert Selection."

Amid the noise of spending clashes, percolating political scandals and a Supreme Court nomination, however, the complaints appear to have had little impact, and Sauerbrey seems to have a clear path to confirmation.

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