WASHINGTON — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday called on the White House to withdraw the nomination of a political fundraiser to be U.S. ambassador to Argentina, saying political and economic turmoil there demanded putting a career diplomat in charge.
At a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Rubio asked the nominee, Democratic political consultant Noah Bryson Mamet, if he had ever been to Argentina. "I haven't had the opportunity yet to be there," he responded, although he added, "I've traveled pretty extensively around the world."
On USA TODAY's "Capital Download," Rubio said he hoped the administration would agree to pull the nomination, perhaps designating Mamet for some less demanding post. If the nomination is allowed to stand, "we're going to see what procedural options we have left to slow down that process and call attention to it."
Under changes in Senate rules made last year, a senator can no longer block such a nomination outright. But Rubio's focus on Mamet's qualifications for a difficult diplomatic posting could create complications and embarrassment for the White House, already under fire for other ambassadorships given to political supporters.
In his confirmation hearing to be ambassador to Norway, hotel magnate George Tsunis referred to the president of Norway — there isn't one — and seemed unaware that the anti-immigrant Progress Party was part of the coalition government there. Hollywood producer Colleen Bell drew brickbats from Arizona Sen. John McCain after she offered only generic comments about the situation in Hungary, where she has been nominated to serve as the ambassador.
"Look, every president has made political appointments of political allies and donors and so forth, and I understand that's still the case and in some instances that works well — you know, if you're going to Malta or if you're going to the Bahamas," Rubio said. "But not every country can you send a political appointee to, and Argentina is one of those countries that we can't."
He noted that Argentina, the largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world, is in the midst of an economic crisis, and that the regime has been cracking down on the news media and political opponents.
The State Department, asked for comment, referred to questions raised at the daily press briefing Friday about several political appointments as ambassador. "Over the course of history, there have been many, many ambassadors who have come from outside the career path who have been very successful," spokeswoman Jen Psaki answered then. "There are many who have been very successful serving in these roles in countries around the world, and that's part of the reason why this will continue."
Obama has been more likely than his recent predecessors to name political supporters to ambassadorships. According to the American Foreign Service Association, 37% of his appointments have been political, compared with 30% by George W. Bush and 28% by Bill Clinton. The Center for Responsive Politics says 20 of the 39 political appointments during Obama's second term had raised more than $500,000 for his 2012 campaign.
In his interview on USA TODAY's weekly newsmaker series, Rubio proposed significant changes in the higher education system to make a college education more affordable and more accessible. He recalled that, when he was sworn in to the U.S. Senate in 2011, he was still carrying $100,000 in college debt that he was able to repay only when royalties came in from his 2012 book, An American Son.
He called for the calibration of monthly loan payments to the borrowers' income. And he said colleges should be required to tell applicants how much students in their chosen study area end up earning after graduation. That way, he said, "they can make a cost-benefit analysis about whether it's worth taking out a massive amount of student debt to get a degree that may or may not lead to employment in the 21st century."
He also proposed that Congress establish an independent board to accredit online courses, making it easier to use them to build toward a degree.
Some colleges oppose the proposals, which he unveiled Monday in a speech at Miami-Dade College, because "they are benefiting from a stagnant status quo," he said.
On immigration, Rubio was downbeat about prospects for passing significant legislation this year. He was a key member of the bipartisan group that negotiated a compromise bill that passed the Senate last year.
He cited a concern raised by some Republicans that Obama couldn't be trusted to follow through with promises to tighten border security and enforcement, citing delays the president has ordered as recently as Monday on implementing provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The senator said it was "quite frankly potentially impossible at this stage" to overcome those concerns.
Rubio, 42, has been mentioned as a potential Republican presidential contender.
"In 2016, my Senate term expires, so I have to make a decision whether I want to run for re-election, run for another office or go home," he said. That's a decision he'll make "this time next year."
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