Sauerbrey says U.N. work readied her for refugees

Senate Democrats question her qualifications, opposition to abortion


WASHINGTON -- Testifying at a Senate confirmation hearing yesterday, Ellen R. Sauerbrey defended her qualifications to head the State Department's refugee office, saying that her recent work at the United Nations had prepared her for the job.

Under sometimes sharp questioning by Democrats, including Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a fellow Marylander who raised doubts about her background, Sauerbrey pointed to her experience as U.S. envoy to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

"I have worked with every issue that is pertinent to women's rights, and they are certainly pertinent to refugees," Sauerbrey told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I have a very, very deep commitment to the fundamental work of this bureau, which is protecting vulnerable people."

She appears likely to earn the approval of the committee, where Republicans hold a 10-8 advantage. A vote could come as early as next week.

Sauerbrey, 68, had not spoken publicly since President Bush nominated her last month to be an assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. In the job, she would be a major voice in the Bush administration on refugee and humanitarian issues, in charge of an annual budget of roughly $1 billion.

Some refugee organizations and a coalition of liberal women's groups have opposed the nomination, questioning Sauerbrey's qualifications and saying that her opposition to abortion could affect her policy decisions.

Sauerbrey, a two-time Republican nominee for Maryland governor and 16-year veteran of the House of Delegates, pointed to her experience in managing people, developing budgets and overseeing large initiatives.

"I think these are the skills that one needs, along with the humanitarian heart, to get the job done," Sauerbrey said.

After the hearing, Sauerbrey said critics had "totally mischaracterized" her as an opponent of family planning. She said she has been a staunch advocate of improving maternal health around the world.

Sauerbrey said critics failed to take into account her experience building political coalitions, which she called a key to success in the State Department job.

"I think they just need to give me a chance to demonstrate that I will apply those same skills and passion," she said in an interview.

Several liberal Democrats expressed concerns about the nomination during the hearing.

Sarbanes, who noted that her nomination has been controversial, asked Sauerbrey to outline the work she had done at the United Nations.

"It's really raising the question about the qualifications you bring to handle this refugee issue," he said.

"You're having to labor in the shadow of Michael Brown," added Sarbanes, referring to the widely criticized former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who had scant experience managing natural disasters before taking the job.

Critics have compared Sauerbrey to Brown and to Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers, who have been attacked by opponents as political appointees without adequate qualifications.

Sauerbrey was state chairwoman of Bush's 2000 presidential campaign in Maryland but is not part of the White House inner circle.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said she had "strong reservations" about Sauerbrey's qualifications, in particular her opposition to abortion rights. By law, U.S. foreign aid dollars cannot be used to pay for abortions, but critics fear Sauerbrey could impose more-restrictive reproductive health policies for refugees.

"I believe this is not a position for an ideologue," Boxer said.

Boxer made reference to a U.N. skirmish this year, when Sauerbrey pushed a Bush administration-backed amendment to a 1995 women's rights declaration. The amendment stated that efforts to achieve equality for women do not include the right to abortion. Sauerbrey ultimately withdrew the proposal.

Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, said after the hearing that while he did not doubt Sauerbrey's commitment to helping refugees, he was concerned about her ability to cope with a humanitarian crisis. Obama said he plans to submit additional written questions to Sauerbrey.

"I can tell she does have management experience and appears to be very competent, but in fields that are almost entirely unrelated to the job she's been nominated for," he said.

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