- For the 4th time, Republicans boycotted a hearing for Biden’s highest-ranking nominee who is Muslim.
- Republicans have accused Dilawar Syed of anti-Semitism, a charge that leading Jewish groups have refuted.
- Advocacy groups and Senate Democrats are decrying the blockade as “bigoted” and “personal.”
For the fourth time, Senate Republicans blocked the consideration of Dilawar Syed, the CEO of a healthcare AI company and President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration, in the Senate’s Small Business Committee. If confirmed, Syed would be the highest-ranking official in the federal government who is a practicing Muslim.
Syed is not the only Biden nominee facing a blockade — Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley have put a hold on many of the president’s diplomatic and national security-related nominees as well. But this blockade, according to Senate Democrats and religious advocacy groups, is different.
“We’re not exactly sure what they want,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, the chair of the committee where Syed’s nomination remains held up. “This is obstructionist, and it’s very personal to Mr. Syed.”
“In his case, some of the arguments they’ve raised are… not persuasive,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democratic member of the committee.
The GOP blockade has held up the business of the committee for months as Republicans have boycotted several scheduled committee meetings in order to deny the committee a quorum, adding a further layer of frustration for Democrats.
“We can debate the issues, we can debate the person, but to deny a quorum is not fair to the small business owners who need help around the country,” Sen. Jacky Rosen told Insider. Democrats have sought to highlight the need to fill the SBA position as small businesses struggle to emerge from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Republicans have seized on Syed’s membership on the board of Emgage Action, a Muslim-American advocacy group. Hawley spearheaded a letter with other Republicans on the committee that specifically called out as “anti-Semitic” a line from one of the group’s press releases that described Palestinians as “occupied” and Israel as “the occupier.”
Republicans also accused Syed of supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which Syed has explicitly disavowed, noting that he’s “personally conducted business with Israeli companies.”
And POLITICO reported in August that an aide to Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho flagged Syed’s Pakistani heritage in a June email to committee members — a detail that has no bearing on Syed’s qualifications to do the job and one that both advocacy groups and Democratic senators have highlighted as an example of the “flagrant anti-Muslim bias” animating Republican opposition to the nominee.
An August letter to the committee from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights touted Jewish groups’ support for Syed, denouncing the Republicans’ boycott of the committee as “tinged with religious bigotry and xenophobia.”
And Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of perhaps the most influential organization combatting anti-Semitism, told the Daily Beast that it was “painful to see the attacks on Mr. Syed’s candidacy because of his association with Emgage” and that “we need him confirmed.”
Senate Democrats largely concur. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Twitter on Wednesday that Democrats were “fighting the Republican hateful, bigoted campaign against this nominee.”
“It is shameful, unacceptable, and ridiculous for Republicans to keep stalling on Mr. Syed’s nomination,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “He is eminently qualified to serve in the SBA.”
“One could conclude that they are being very bigoted and critical,” said Hirono. “But since when does that faze the Republicans in their opposition to anything?”
Cardin, for his part, called the attacks “personal” and “inappropriate.”
Hawley told Insider on Thursday that Syed’s affiliation with Emgage — which even worked with Sen. Rubio’s office in 2019 on a bill to protect Uyghur human rights — is a “non-starter.”
“Particularly in this time of heightened violence for Jewish Americans, there’s no way I’m going to support somebody who has been party to anti-Israel, anti-Semitic comments,” Hawley said. “No way.”
But when asked by Insider about the ADL’s apparent endorsement of Syed, Hawley simply reiterated his position. “It’s my vote, it’s my responsibility,” he said.
Reached for comment, Rubio’s office directed Insider to a tweet by the committee’s Republicans that said they won’t allow a vote on Syed until the Small Business Administration tries to recover PPP loans given out to Planned Parenthood branches. Sen. Roger Marshall’s office also flagged the issue when asked by Insider about the blockade.
—Senate Small Biz (@SmallBizCmteGOP) July 26, 2021
And Sen. Rand Paul, the committee’s ranking Republican who did not sign on to Hawley’s letter, wrote in an op-ed today that his opposition to voting on Syed is also related to PPP loans given to Planned Parenthood.
But Senate Democrats aren’t buying that rationale either.
“Every time we try to accommodate their requests, they move the goalposts,” said Cardin, noting that Syed has “nothing to do with” Planned Parenthood.
The offices of Sens. Rand Paul, Jim Risch, Tim Scott, Joni Ernst, Jim Inhofe, Todd Young, and John Kennedy — all of whom sit on the committee — did not respond to requests for comment.