Secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo narrowly eked out an endorsement from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday after President Trump and a Democratic senator intervened at the last minute, all but guaranteeing that he will be confirmed by the full Senate later this week.
Pompeo had seemed unlikely to secure a majority of the panel’s support. But Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who had pledged to oppose him, tweeted moments before the vote that Trump had talked with him and changed his mind.
Paul’s key concern had been that Pompeo, currently director of the CIA, would not support Trump’s campaign pledge to pull troops out of Afghanistan. The senator also had called on Pompeo “to support President Trump’s belief that the Iraq war was a mistake.”
“Having received assurances from President Trump and Director Pompeo that he agrees with the President on these important issues, I have decided to support his nomination to be our next secretary of state,” Paul said.
The panel’s vote was largely symbolic, since Pompeo had secured enough votes to be confirmed by the full Senate earlier in the day, when two Democrats facing difficult reelection challenges in 2018 — Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) — announced that they would back his nomination on the floor.
But Trump’s supporters were determined to have Pompeo enter office without the mark of being the first secretary of state in almost a century to fail a committee vote.
The committee ultimately voted 11 to 10 along party lines to endorse Pompeo. But because of a quirk in the Senate rules, the panel could not send its recommendation to the full Senate, as one of those 11 Republicans — Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) — was not present for the vote. He was out of town delivering a eulogy at his best friend’s funeral, senators said.
A negative vote on Pompeo’s nomination would not necessarily have precluded the full Senate from taking it up. But for GOP leaders, time was of the essence: They want Pompeo to be confirmed in time to attend a meeting of NATO foreign ministers Friday.
At the urging of panel chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Democratic Sen. Christopher A. Coons (Del.) volunteered to change his vote to “present” — making the vote 11 in favor, 9 opposed and 1 present, and enabling the committee to quickly push Pompeo’s nomination to the floor.
“Senator Isakson is one of my closest friends here . . . and he’s been through an incredibly hard day,” Coons told reporters. He said it would have been “heartless” to shuttle Isakson off his return flight straight to a delayed committee vote when the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
The gesture was an increasingly rare one in the politically divided Congress, where it is difficult for lawmakers to extend personal gestures without facing political scrutiny. As Coons explained his decision to reporters outside the committee room, a protester yelled at him: “You care more about your friend than you do this country!”
Coons said he still intended to vote against Pompeo’s nomination on the Senate floor. At this point, only three Democrats — Manchin, Donnelly and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), who announced her support last week — have committed to back Pompeo’s confirmation.
Last year, 14 Democrats voted to confirm Pompeo as CIA director, but several have already stated that they will not back him to serve as secretary of state.
On Monday, White House officials again urged Senate Democrats to support Pompeo’s nomination, with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying on Fox News Channel that the administration hoped “that some members will change their minds.”
Democrats have raised several objections to Pompeo’s nomination, arguing that his previous statements favoring the use of force over diplomatic options, his record of controversial quips about American Muslims and same-sex marriage, and concerns that he would not challenge Trump on matters of foreign policy made him unfit to serve as secretary of state.
Pompeo’s supporters appeared to be bracing for a negative outcome in the Foreign Relations Committee, arguing that the panel is not representative of the full Senate. Last week, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told reporters that “the Senate will set [the panel] straight” if it refused to endorse Pompeo’s nomination. Cotton also issued a threat to Democratic senators such as Manchin and Heitkamp who are facing difficult elections, noting that if they oppose Pompeo “and they’re up for reelection, they may suffer the consequences.”
Senate leaders are expected to put the nomination to a floor vote later this week.
Trump’s supporters pointed to the integral role that Pompeo, as CIA director, has had in advising the president on national security and foreign policy matters, including how to approach the Iran nuclear deal, which is nearing a critical extension deadline of May 12, and promised denuclearization talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with whom Pompeo met to discuss the terms of the summit expected next month.
But politically, the tone for Pompeo’s tenure will be set in part by how his floor vote stacks up against that of his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who was ousted earlier this year. Tillerson was confirmed as secretary of state by a vote of 56 to 43, “a remarkably low level of support,” said Jeff Rathke, a former career Foreign Service officer and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
If Pompeo secures more votes for his confirmation, “it could suggest marginally greater confidence from the Senate,” Rathke continued. But he noted that the strength of Pompeo’s bipartisan mandate will be “historically low” and “will mean a reinforcement of the partisan divide on foreign policy.”
Others say that Pompeo will make his reputation once in office — and that if he helps to rebuild the relevance of the department, which flagged in morale and staffing under Tillerson’s stewardship, the politics surrounding his confirmation vote will not matter.
“Opponents say they want the State Department rebuilt and the secretary to have positions different from the president. Pompeo has promised the first. The second is not reasonable,” said Ronald E. Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former career diplomat. “If confirmed, he will be judged on his performance going forward.”
John Wagner and John Hudson contributed to this report.