New Delhi: After 20 months in limbo over questions about his handling of allegations of sexual harassment by an aide, former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has finally been confirmed as the new US ambassador to India after several Republican senators rallied to save his nomination.
This has marked a political victory for US President Joe Biden, who had stuck with Garcetti despite facing roadblocks which left the post of US envoy to New Delhi vacant for over two years. Garcetti had been one of the early endorsers of Biden’s presidential bid and joined him as national campaign co-chair.
The breakthrough came ahead of two crucial visits – Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to travel to the US in July, and Biden will participate at the G-20 summit in India this September.
On Wednesday morning, Garcetti advanced towards full confirmation after the Senate voted 52-42 to invoke a cloture motion that limits debate on his nomination. The final vote in the chamber, where the Democrats have a slight majority of 51 seats to the 49 held by Republicans, took place after lunch.
Ahead of the vote on the motion, there had been uncertainty about whether Garcetti would have the numbers with an unusually high number of senators absent. Democrat Mazie Hirono, who had earlier indicated that she would vote for Garcetti, told reporters that she would vote ‘no’ as she had got credible new information about the former LA mayor’s unsuitability for the post.
On Monday, a former communicator director for Garcetti, Naomi Seligman, told CNN that he was “unfit to become an ambassador or really to hold public office anywhere in this country or this world”.
Counting votes for the procedural motion was nail-biting as the lead initially oscillated between the two sides. In the end, seven Republicans defected to the ‘aye’ aisle, and three Democrats, including Hirono, voted against the cloture motion. Six senators did not vote.
After the Senate confirmed Garcetti with an identical tally of 52-42, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “the United States-India relationship is extremely important, and it’s a very good thing that we now have an ambassador.”
The path to Roosevelt House has been a thorny one for Garcetti ever since President Biden first nominated him in July 2021, six months after the last US envoy Kenneth Juster left his post.
The Senate foreign relations committee approved his nomination in January 2022. Still, the confirmation vote was not scheduled amidst questions raised by some Democrats uneasy over the allegations that Garcetti wilfully ignored complaints of sexual misconduct against a top aide, Rick Jacobs.
Garcetti has vociferously denied that he had witnessed any wrongdoing or been aware of these allegations.
In May 2022, Republican senator Chuck Grassley released a report that claimed that Garcetti “likely knew or should have known” that Jacobs had allegedly sexually harassed city employees. The White House had dismissed the report as a “hit job from the beginning”. Earlier in March, the city of Los Angeles had cleared Garcetti of any wrongdoing.
As per media reports, even when Garcetti’s nomination had seemingly lost momentum, he had spent “considerable sums of money” on lobbyists. His parents also hired a lobbyist to help their son’s prospects in Washington.
In January this year, the Biden administration renominated Garcetti. The Senate foreign affairs panel voted in his favour by 13 votes to eight on March 8.
According to Politico, Garcetti had been making the rounds in Washington over the last few weeks, focusing on getting support from Republican senators.
Last week, Republican Senator from Maine, Susan Collins, said she had an “excellent meeting” with Garcetti and had been impressed with his knowledge about India. She voted in favour of Garcetti.
As the final tally showed, Garcetti’s fate depended on the Republican votes as some of his Democrat colleagues continued to demur.
After the cloture motion, Republican Senator Todd Young told CNN that he voted in favour of Garcetti as it was a “national security imperative”.
“We have to balance concerns about the nominee against the real risk of waiting another year till we have an ambassador on the ground,” he said.
Mark Kelly, one of three Democrats who voted against Garcetti, said that his decision was dictated by “significant concerns” over the “environment that was allowed to exist in his office over an extended period of time”.
In his December 2021 testimony to the Senate foreign affairs committee, Garcetti said he visited India for the first time as a teenager. He also studied Hindi and Indian cultural and religious history in college.
“If confirmed, I intend to double-down on our efforts to strengthen India’s capacity to secure its borders, defend its sovereignty, and deter aggression – through information sharing, counterterrorism coordination, joint freedom of navigation patrols and military exercises (which I have participated in as a naval officer alongside my Indian counterparts), and sales of our best defense technologies in order to realize the full potential of our Major Defense Partnership,” he said.
In answer to questions during the 2021 hearing, Garcetti stated that he would bring up human rights and discrimination via the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) as a “core” part of his engagement, rather than a mere obligation.
On engagement with Indian civil society, he said, “There are groups that are actively fighting for human rights of people on the ground in India that will get direct engagement from me”.
These statements about human rights in India had riled certain sections which openly lobbied against Garcetti. A day before the Senate vote, the political advocacy group of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America had called on voters to write to their senators to reject Garcetti’s nomination as his “untruthful, sanctimonious, and undiplomatic attitude and interference in India’s internal affair will alienate majority of Indians and cause severe harm to US-India relations”