Kahl’s Nomination Now Hinges on Three Democratic Senators: Duckworth, Hirono, and Manchin

Colin Kahl
Colin Kahl / Getty Images
March 23, 2021

Update March 24: Senators Duckworth and Hirono dropped their objections to non-minority nominees late Tuesday night after the Biden administration announced it would appoint a senior-level White House liaison for the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community.

The nomination of Colin Kahl, the Biden administration’s pick for Pentagon policy chief, now hinges on not one but three Democratic senators. Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.) and Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii) on Tuesday announced they will oppose Kahl if he comes up for a floor vote, due to the administration’s lack of high-level Asian-American appointments—a surprise turn of events that could be a fatal blow to Kahl’s floundering nomination.

The other Democratic senator, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, has said he is still on the fence over the nominee, who has faced controversy due to his inflammatory tweets and pro-Iran policies.

If Manchin ends up voting for Kahl on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the nomination proceeds to a floor vote, Duckworth and Hirono's boycott could sink Kahl’s chances of getting approved by the evenly divided Senate. Although Duckworth and Hirono are also members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hirono said she still plans to support Kahl in the committee vote, which is scheduled to take place tomorrow. Duckworth's office did not respond to a request for comment.

"Duckworth said she has informed the White House she will oppose the nomination of Colin Kahl as the Pentagon's top policy chief, whose nomination was already hanging by a thread," tweeted CNN reporter Manu Raju on Tuesday afternoon, quoting her comment that she would be a "no vote on the floor on all non-diversity nominees."

Duckworth said she will be "voting NO on Biden nominees until President makes commitment/ appoints [Asian-American and Pacific Islander] picks to key executive branch positions," wrote Raju. The Illinois senator said she made the decision after a White House official defended the lack of Asian-American appointments by referring to Vice President Kamala Harris’s South Asian heritage on Monday, a response that Duckworth found inadequate and "insulting."

The Democratic senators' announcements came shortly after the Senate Armed Services Committee rescheduled a vote on Kahl for Wednesday, sources told the Washington Free Beacon. Democrats on the committee had tentatively scheduled the vote for Tuesday but delayed it while waiting on Manchin to make a decision.

Manchin’s continued uncertainty could be another bad sign for Kahl, who reportedly spoke to the senator by phone on Monday night. The West Virginia Democrat was expected to announce a decision at Tuesday’s committee lunch, but as of Tuesday evening no announcement had been made, according to sources close to the committee. Manchin declined to say if he plans to vote for Kahl when asked by Raju Tuesday night. His office did not respond to a request for comment from the Free Beacon.

With Republicans lined up against the nominee, Kahl would need support from every Democrat on the committee in order to advance to the Senate floor. A defection from either Duckworth or Manchin in the committee would effectively end his bid. If Kahl advances to a full Senate vote, he would likely need unified Democratic approval to narrowly pass the 50-50 body, with Harris potentially serving as a tie-breaker.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.), the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking Republican, also announced his official opposition to Kahl’s nomination on Tuesday, saying the "position demands bipartisanship, even temperament and good policy judgment—characteristics I don’t believe Dr. Kahl has demonstrated."

"@POTUS made excellent selections with @SecDef and @DepSecDef, and I urge him to send us nominees who can garner the same bipartisan support as they did," Inhofe wrote on Twitter.

Kahl’s nomination has been plagued with controversy since early March, after the Free Beacon first reported on his history of tweets attacking Republicans and individuals whom he disagrees with on foreign policy.

Kahl denounced the Republican Party as the "party of ethnic cleansing" and claimed "hawks in Congress ... won't be satisfied until they get the war they've pushed for decades." He also took aim at individual senators, including Republicans Tom Cotton (Ark.), Mitt Romney (Utah), and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Democrat Robert Menendez (N.J.).

Kahl accused Cotton of trying to win a Trump administration nomination by "appealing to Trump's inner-authoritarian" and tweeted that Graham "sold his soul to Trump." The nominee also appeared to question the patriotism of Republicans in Congress in October 2019.

He quoted Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman as saying: "I am a patriot … and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend our country irrespective of party or politics." Kahl added, "If only more Republicans in Congress could say the same."

In a series of tweets, Kahl called Menendez’s 2013 Iran sanctions legislation "a diplomatic train wreck" and a "poison pill" that would make "war more likely." He also approvingly tweeted a link to a blog post on the website "Lobe Log" that called Menendez’s bill the "Kirk-Menendez Wag the Dog Act" and claimed it was designed by the "Israel lobby" to push the United States into war with Iran.

"Proof that the new Iran sanctions legislation is a bad idea? Look at the Iraq war crowd supporting it," wrote Kahl, linking to the blog post.

The post, which was headlined "Neocons Who Brought You The Iraq War Endorse AIPAC’s Iran Bill," claimed "the Israel lobby, for which AIPAC is the vanguard, are flogging as hard as they possibly can" for the bill.