For the first time in the history of the republic, it appears increasingly likely that a majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote against the president’s nominee for secretary of state. If this happens, it would be a black mark not on Mike Pompeo’s record, but on the reputation of this once-storied committee.
There are no instances of a secretary of state nominee ever receiving an unfavorable committee vote since such votes were first publicly recorded in 1925. (Before that, the committee voted in closed session.) Democrat John Kerry was approved in a unanimous voice vote, including from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who opposes Pompeo. Democrat Hillary Clinton was approved 16 to 1, despite concerns about foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation. Madeleine Albright was approved unanimously, with the strong support of my former boss, the committee’s conservative then-chairman, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who called Albright “a tough and courageous lady” and voted for her despite saying that she was “sincerely wrong” in some of her foreign policy views.
Other Democrats, including Warren Christopher and Cyrus Vance, were also approved unanimously in committee, as were Republicans Colin Powell, James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz. Indeed, no secretary of state going all the way back to Henry Kissinger had ever received more than two negative votes in the Foreign Relations Committee — until Donald Trump became president.
Last year, all 10 Democrats on the committee voted “no” to Rex Tillerson’s nomination, making him the first secretary of state in history to be approved on a party-line vote. Now, thanks to the opposition from those 10 Democrats and Paul, it appears that Pompeo could soon become the first secretary of state nominee in history to receive a negative recommendation from the committee.
There is simply no excuse for this. There are no ethical questions hanging over Pompeo’s nomination. He has engaged in no disqualifying personal conduct. And no one questions that he is extraordinarily qualified for the job. Indeed, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said that Pompeo “has a clear record of public service to his nation — in uniform, in Congress, and as the director of the CIA.” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he believes that Pompeo “will work hard to restore morale at State and work to supplement, not atrophy, the diplomatic tools at the Secretary of State’s disposal.” Yet both are voting against him. Indeed, nine of the committee’s 10 Democrats have already declared their opposition to Pompeo — including two, Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who voted for him to lead the CIA.
Their opposition comes just as President Trump is preparing for a high-stakes nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Pompeo recently returned from North Korea, where he met with Kim and laid the groundwork for this historic meeting. Democrats ought to ask themselves how their actions will be seen in Pyongyang. To deliver such an undeserved rebuke to Pompeo at such a critical diplomatic moment would be a shameful abdication of the committee’s responsibilities.
It would also breach two centuries of precedent in which the committee has carefully examined the credentials and qualifications of the president’s nominee for secretary of state but acknowledged that the president should have his choice of who should be his chief diplomatic adviser. It is one thing for senators to use a nomination as leverage to gain commitments on specific policy matters. (Helms insisted that Albright work with him on his plans to reform the United Nations and reorganize the State Department, which she did.) Effective senators understand how to use the nomination process to win policy fights. But for senators to vote down a highly qualified nominee over their disdain for the president is completely unwarranted and, quite frankly, a breach of Senate norms.
A negative vote would hurt the Foreign Relations Committee more than it would Pompeo. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will bring his nomination to the floor regardless of what the committee does, and it is expected that some Democrats — such as Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who has publicly announced her support — will vote for him. And when Pompeo is confirmed by the full Senate, he would be more than justified in determining that the State Department is best served by working closely with the appropriators and Senate leadership, and bypassing a committee that can’t make policy, can’t legislate and can’t lead.
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