WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Thursday confirmed President Barack Obama's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to El Salvador as election-year pressure from Hispanics helped break a stalemate over the selection.
Six months after the nomination seemed dead, the Senate voted 62-37 to cut off debate and pave the way for approval of Mari Carmen Aponte, a Washington lawyer and Hispanic activist. Her nomination won final confirmation on a voice vote less than an hour later.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had personally lobbied senators on Aponte's behalf in the days leading up to the vote, and nine Republicans joined all the Democrats and independents on the recorded vote.
Aponte had served as ambassador in San Salvador from September 2010 to December 2011. Unable to win Senate confirmation in the face of GOP opposition, Obama had made her a recess appointee, but her temporary tenure ran out at year's end.
Republicans had opposed Aponte over unfounded rumors that her boyfriend of years ago was a Cuban spy and over conservative outrage at an opinion piece she wrote last summer on gay rights. Democrats argued that she was an immensely qualified nominee who had accomplished a great deal in her short time in the diplomatic post.
During her 15 months, "she was really an exemplary nominee on whom the Puerto Rican community and the Hispanics in general can feel proud," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D.-N.J., said Aponte had fostered a strong U.S.-Salvadoran bilateral relationship and noted that it was the only Latin American country with troops fighting alongside U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Leading the opposition to the nomination was Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who insisted on Thursday that the Obama administration had been uncooperative in providing information.
"We pretty much have been stonewalled on the questions that we sent," DeMint said before the vote.
Hispanic groups had pressed Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to break ranks with conservative Republicans to ensure Aponte's confirmation. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus urged him to follow through on a promise to secure the votes for Aponte. Puerto Rico Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock, a Democrat, questioned whether Rubio would stop a qualified Puerto Rican woman from representing the United States.
Rubio had told reporters Wednesday that it wasn't his responsibility to round up votes.
"I'm not a whip for the State Department. I worked on this endeavor in December. I delivered those to them," he said. "Obviously I'm responsible for my vote and anybody of my colleagues who want to ask me my position, I'll be more than happy to state it. I never had any opposition to her. I opposed every Western Hemisphere nominee until the administration did a few things I asked of them and they did those things."
In a statement after the vote, Rubio said he expected Aponte to "serve our nation well in El Salvador." He also took a swipe at Reid and the Obama administration, saying he had the votes for Aponte from other Republicans last December and informed Reid, but instead, the Democratic leader used the nomination to help the White House "play divisive ethnic politics."
"These are the tactics this administration increasingly uses, which have made it the most deliberately divisive presidency in modern times," Rubio said.
Said Reid in a statement: "I am pleased that a few, reasonable Senate Republicans dropped their unwarranted opposition and helped us confirm a well-qualified nominee today."
The nine Republican senators were Rubio, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who faces re-election this year.