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Huntsman confirmation hearing could come as soon as mid-September

FILE - Jon Huntsman Jr. listens to a question during a Deseret News, KSL editorial board meeting In Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.
FILE - Jon Huntsman Jr. listens to a question during a Deseret News, KSL editorial board meeting In Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A Senate confirmation committee could consider former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s nomination by President Donald Trump as U.S. ambassador to Russia as soon as mid-September.

Huntsman is expected to begin formal briefings with senators when Congress returns from its recess on Sept. 5, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee possibly holding a hearing the following week, a source told the Deseret News.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing for Huntsman. His nomination, first discussed in March but not submitted to the Senate until July, requires approval by the full Senate.

A recent article about Huntsman's nomination in the Guardian also suggested a similar timeline.

"Huntsman is keen to get to Moscow as soon as possible, and if all goes smoothly, his arrival in the Russian capital is expected in the second week of September," the article stated, noting how delicate the posting is.

Not only is there an ongoing federal investigation into ties between Trump's campaign and Russia, but there is escalating tension over Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election that is reminiscent of the Cold War.

Earlier this summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the expulsion of 755 U.S. diplomats and their staffs from Russia by Sept. 1, a response to new U.S. sanctions against Russia.

The Trump administration has been slow to fill many positions, and it has taken an average of 54 days for nominations to be confirmed, longer than under previous presidents, according to tracking by the Washington Post.

If the average holds true for Huntsman's nomination, that would mean a mid-September confirmation vote.

"The timeline right now looks to be perfectly normal," a Senate aide told the Deseret News, given the Trump administration's track record. "People nominated in January weren't confirmed until end of May or early June."

The aide, however, said a September confirmation may not happen for Huntsman. When Congress returns from its recess after Labor Day, there are plenty of difficult issues already on the table, including raising the nation's debt ceiling.

Scott Cooper, a BYU political science professor and expert on Russian politics, also downplayed the chances that Huntsman could be on his way to Moscow in just a few weeks.

"I guess it's still possible that the foreign relations committee could come back from their recess in early September and push this through, and then it will move really fast through the Senate," Cooper said. "I think it would be really bizarre."

Complicating the confirmation, he said, is that Huntsman is headed for a country at the center of concerns about the Trump administration, particularly what some perceive as the president's partiality toward Putin.

"People who are concerned about the administration's Russia policy might use his nomination as a chance to slow things down and ask some questions," Cooper said, including Republicans seeking to distance themselves from Trump.

"This wouldn't seem to be the kind of thing that would go through the Senate on a routine basis," he said.

But senators are likely to trust Huntsman, who has successfully gone through the confirmation process before, Cooper said.

Huntsman, who ran for president in 2012, served as U.S. ambassador to China under former President Barack Obama, and as U.S. ambassador to Singapore under former President George H.W. Bush.

"I don't think people will be going after Huntsman particularly," Cooper said. "But you can certainly imagine people using the nomination as an opportunity to lay down some markers for the administration."

He said the amount of time it's taken to advance Huntsman's nomination since it was first confirmed by administration officials in March is "actually good, given their overall futility" in filling positions.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has complained about how long it's taking to fill vacancies. Of the 141 ambassadorships and other appointed State Department posts, only 24 of the 46 nominees so far have been confirmed.

Huntsman has not commented on his nomination.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who served as general counsel in Huntsman's administration, is ready to help his former boss get confirmed.

Huntsman stepped down in 2009, after being elected to a second term, to take the Chinese ambassadorship.

“Sen. Lee has every confidence that Ambassador Huntsman will ably and honestly serve our nation, and he stands ready to do everything he can to help the ambassador through the nomination process," Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said.