Sauerbrey wins support, loses job

Despite refugee activists' praise, temporary post expires today

December 31, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- In nearly two years as the top State Department official on refugees, Ellen R. Sauerbrey has won some unlikely champions: refugee advocates who once said she was ill-prepared for the position.

But as her temporary appointment draws to a close, their support has not been enough to save her job.

In recent weeks, representatives of Refugees International, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and other groups that initially objected to Sauerbrey's nomination have met with Senate staff members to push for a vote that would enable her to stay on through the end of President Bush's term.

The refugee advocates say the knowledge and experience that Sauerbrey, a 70-year-old former Maryland lawmaker and two-time Republican nominee for governor, has acquired as assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration is now essential to an administration dealing with displacement crises in Iraq, Darfur and beyond.

`Real leadership'

"There's a huge challenge right now in Iraq in particular," said Mark Hetfield, a senior official with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in Washington. "Ellen has shown real leadership in terms of starting a program from nothing in a politically charged atmosphere and actually getting assistance to Iraqi refugees. ... We're really concerned that there won't be leadership if she's not reappointed."

More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, an exodus that has overwhelmed Syria, Jordan and other neighbors. The United States has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to international organizations that are trying to deal with the crisis, but continues to fall well short of the number of refugees it has pledged to resettle here.

Refugee advocates who have been critical of the U.S. response see Sauerbrey as an ally within the Bush administration.

"Within a very difficult environment, she has tried to be responsive," said Richard Parkins, chairman of Refugee Council USA. "We've not managed to achieve everything that we would like to have achieved, but within the total scheme of things, we feel that the program is better off by having her continue."

Stalled in Senate

The temporary appointment of Sauerbrey, who was installed by Bush in early 2006 after her nomination stalled in the Senate, ends today. Bush renominated her early this year, but members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee objected, and the panel never took up the matter.

Those members now have withdrawn their holds on her nomination, a Senate staffer said, but lawmakers left Washington for the year before a hearing was scheduled.

"We think it's unfortunate that the Senate hasn't been able to complete its important work on confirming people to serve in critical positions throughout the federal government," said White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore. "We think she's obviously very qualified, and she's done a good job in this position, and it's unfortunate that the Senate hasn't provided leadership on some of these nominations."

Opposition letter

Not everyone is sorry to see Sauerbrey go. While refugee advocates were pushing for a hearing, supporters of abortion rights, who formed the other bloc of opposition to her nomination, circulated a letter restating their objections.

"Mrs. Sauerbrey remains an opponent of reproductive health and family planning, which are often the most critically needed services for refugee women, the very population she was appointed to serve," read the letter, signed by the Center for Health and Gender Equity in Takoma Park, Catholics for Choice, Population Connection and the International Women's Health Coalition.

The groups cited Sauerbrey's appearance in May at the World Congress of Families, a conference held in Warsaw, Poland, for opponents of abortion and same-sex marriage. Nineteen members of the European Parliament asked Sauerbrey to reconsider her plans to speak there; one told The Sun that the conference agenda ran against the values of tolerance, diversity and inclusion that the European Union has tried to promote.

The State Department did not make Sauerbrey available for an interview then or now. She is one of 19 Bush administration officials scheduled to leave office today, the last official day of the 2007 Senate session. All are recess appointees, installed by Bush in 2006 while lawmakers were away from Washington, as allowed by the Constitution.

Conceived more than two centuries ago as a way to allow the White House to temporarily fill important federal positions during the long stretches when the early Senate was unavailable to provide advice and consent, the recess appointment has been used in modern times by presidents of both parties to bypass the confirmation process for controversial nominees. Recess appointees may serve through the end of the next Senate session.

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