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Senate confirms Rahm Emanuel to be Japan ambassador

At 1:30 a.m. Saturday, Emanuel was confirmed on a 48-21 roll call with only three Democrats — Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley from Oregon — voting no.

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel testifies during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, Oct. 20.
Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel testifies during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, Oct. 20.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — In an early morning Saturday vote, the Senate confirmed Rahm Emanuel to be President Joe Biden’s ambassador to Japan, adding a new chapter for a man who’s been a two-term Chicago mayor, congressman and chief of staff to a president.

At 1:30 a.m., Emanuel was confirmed on a 48-21 roll call with only three Democrats — Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley from Oregon — voting no. There were 31 senators not voting, about the same as another overnight vote for another nominee.

Emanuel, 62, will be sworn-in by the end of the year, the Sun-Times has learned, with the ceremony to take place in Chicago so that his elderly mother, Marsha, can attend.

U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Aspen, who took senior status after a long career, will swear Emanuel into office. Emanuel picked Aspen because he presided over the historic settlement, on Emanuel’s watch as mayor, of the landmark Gautreaux case, where the Chicago Housing Authority was sued over racial discrimination because of the pattern of the CHA locating public housing in Chicago’s minority communities.

Emanuel’s name for a job in the Biden administration surfaced shortly after Biden was elected in 2020. A group of Democratic progressives opposed Emanuel for any spot on the Biden team in part because of the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, a Black teen, by a white Chicago police officer while Emanuel was mayor.

The McDonald shooting was a reason cited by Merkley in Emanuel’s November confirmation hearing for his no vote. Markey and Warren, the progressive champion, never made a public push against Emanuel. The other top progressive in the Senate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, did not vote.

Emanuel’s confirmation was never in doubt because of his GOP support and the lack of significant Democratic Senate opposition. Eight Republicans voted for Emanuel: Sens. Roy Blount, Missouri; Susan Collins, Maine; Sen. Bill Hagerty, Tennessee; Ben Sasse, Nebraska; Dean Sullivan, Arkansas; John Thune, South Dakota, and Todd Young, Indiana.

The Senate finished up its work for the year between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Saturday, with the Emanuel confirmation among 41 stalled nominees finally getting a vote. A confirmation vote for Emanuel, tapped for the Tokyo post by Biden in August, was blocked for reasons having to do with an unrelated matter.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, lifted his blockade on the nominees in a deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York for a vote next year on sanctions to prevent Russia from completing the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

The Democratic senators from Illinois, Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, supported Emanuel from the start.

“Rahm Emanuel has a lifetime of public service preparing him for this role. Japan is an important strategic partner in Asia, particularly in light of our continued challenges from China. I have no doubt Rahm will be a strong voice for America in Japan,” Durbin said in a statement.

Emanuel said in tweets: “I’m humbled and appreciative of President Biden’s confidence he has placed in me and grateful for the Senate’s bipartisan support, especially from @SenatorDurbin and @SenDuckworth.

“Our 60-year-old alliance with Japan promotes peace and prosperity. Most importantly, it strengthens our shared democratic values. What we build in partnership over the next three years will determine America’s posture over the next 30 years in the Indo-Pacific region.

“As Ambassador, I will work tirelessly to deepen our ties as our countries confront common challenges. While Chicago will always be home, Amy and I look forward to this next chapter in Japan.”

Emanuel’s name surfaced for an ambassadorship after it was clear he would not be the Transportation Secretary.

Emanuel became too hot for Biden to handle for a Cabinet post after protests from leaders of public service unions, civil rights groups and progressive organizations. That spot went to Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend mayor who ran for president in 2020.

Progressives mounted a failed drive to block the ambassador nomination of Emanuel, who was former President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff and a senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

Emanuel’s long-time relationship with Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, and his closeness to three of his highest-level aides — Ron Klain, Steve Ricchetti and Bruce Reed — cleared the way for his comeback into public life.

Emanuel has been lobbying senators aggressively for months while at the same time preparing for his first diplomatic post.

He knew many from his time in the House, where he served between Jan. 3, 2003 and Jan. 2, 2009, when he quit to join the Obama administration.

Earlier this month, Collins told the Sun-Times, “Rahm and I are good friends. I got to know him very well in the Obama administration. And when he told me he was going to be nominated to be the ambassador to Japan, I offered to help him in any way that I can.” She added, “We keep in touch a couple of times a week, probably a little more than that if you count text messages.”

The financial disclosure report for Emanuel, first elected mayor in 2011, showed he made more than $13 million after leaving City Hall in 2019.