The committee voted unanimously late on Tuesday to approve Heffern’s appointment announced by President Barack Obama in May. The vote paved the way for its endorsement by the full Senate.
Heffern served as deputy head of the U.S. Mission at the NATO headquarters in Brussels when he was nominated for the vacant diplomatic post in Yerevan. He was previously the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia.
The Senate panel was initially due to vote on the nomination in July. The vote was postponed after one of its members, Senator Robert Menendez, said he needs more time to review Heffern’s answers to his questions regarding the World War One-era slaughter of some 1.5 millions Armenians in Ottoman Turkey which many historians consider genocide.
Heffern refused to describe the massacres as genocide during a committee hearing held earlier in July. He said “the characterization of those events is a policy decision that is made by the president of the United States and that policy is enunciated in his April 24 Remembrance Day statement.”
Obama declined to use the word genocide in that statement, contrary to his promises given to the influential Armenian-American community during the last U.S. presidential race.
Menendez expressed his dissatisfaction with Heffern’s remarks on the sensitive subject on July 13. “This is an inartful dance that we do … We have a historical knowledge of the facts which we accept that would amount to genocide, but we are unwilling to reference it as genocide,” he complained.
The New Jersey Democrat, known for his staunch support for Armenian-American causes, voiced no objections to Heffern’s appointment before Tuesday’s vote. The two main Armenian lobby groups in Washington likewise stopped short of urging the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to vote against the nominee.
Menendez famously blocked in 2007 congressional confirmation of Richard Hoagland, another career diplomat nominated for the top U.S. diplomatic post in Yerevan, because of the latter’s failure to call the 1915 massacres genocide. The administration of then President George W. Bush was forced to make another ambassadorial appointment.
There has been far more controversy surrounding Senate confirmation of Francis Ricciardone, Obama’s pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Ricciardone angered the Armenian-American community when he told Menendez last month that most of more than 2,000 Armenian churches that existed in Turkey before 1915 are still functioning.
Ricciardone failed to placate the community leaders and pro-Armenian legislators after seemingly retracting that claim later in August.
Menendez stated on Tuesday that he has “lost confidence” in the nominee. “His response indicates a lack of focus or interest in issues affecting the Armenian community and sends a message to Turkey that the Armenia issue is not an ‘A-list’ issue,” he said before voting against Ricciardone’s confirmation along with two other senators.
But that did not keep the other members of the Senate panel from approving the diplomat’s appointment.