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Heitkamp becomes first Democrat to pledge support for Pompeo as secretary of state

CIA director Mike Pompeo testifies April 12 on Capitol Hill on his nomination to be secretary of state.
CIA director Mike Pompeo testifies April 12 on Capitol Hill on his nomination to be secretary of state. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp on Thursday became the first Senate Democrat to announce she would support CIA director Mike Pompeo’s bid to become secretary of state, potentially clinching his bid — as long as no more Republicans refuse to vote for confirmation.

Heitkamp’s announcement, in which she said that “Pompeo demonstrated . . . that he is committed to empowering the diplomats at the State Department,” will not make it any easier for Pompeo to secure the support of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before his bid heads to the floor. The panel is to vote on his nomination Monday, but with several committee Democrats and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pledging to vote against Pompeo, his chances of securing the 21-member panel’s favorable recommendation are slim.

Pompeo, who has made headlines in recent days for his secret trip to North Korea over Easter weekend, became CIA director last year with the support of 14 Senate Democrats; at least six of them — including the two who sit on the Foreign Relations Committee — have refused to back Pompeo as the nation’s top diplomat.

While some senators decide to vote against Mike Pompeo's confirmation for Secretary of State, most see his trip to North Korea as a positive step. (Video: Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post)

To secure the committee’s blessing, Pompeo will need at least one vote from the 10 Democrats on the 21-member panel because of Paul’s opposition. It remains to be seen whether any more panel Republicans — in particular, Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) — also withhold their support.

Pompeo’s North Korea trip set the table for Trump’s planned meeting with Kim Jong Un

Flake has refused to say whether he will back Pompeo’s nomination but was emphatic Thursday that he was “still working on it” and was not ready to support him.

“I’m not there. I just need some — I mean, what I’m looking for is consistent with U.S. policy and it’s not a heavy lift,” Flake said, declining to offer details but noting that he and Pompeo spoke Wednesday night.

The committee can still send Pompeo’s nomination to the Senate floor for a vote with an unfavorable recommendation if only a minority of panel members support it. But Pompeo risks becoming the first secretary of state nominee in almost a century not to gain a favorable committee recommendation before advancing to the floor.

But if Flake declines to support Pompeo’s nomination, it also means a second Democrat would have to back him to secure his confirmation on the Senate floor. GOP leaders seem confident that other Democrats will join Heitkamp — but allies of President Trump nonetheless launched an all-out effort this week to persuade Democrats to vote for Pompeo, even warning those facing difficult reelection battles against voting “no” at their peril.

Speaking Wednesday on a call sponsored by the White House, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said the Democrats up for reelection in 2018 who oppose Pompeo’s bid “may suffer the consequences.”

In recent days, a number of Democrats have spoken out against Pompeo’s nomination. But most Democrats facing difficult reelections battles this fall have not said how they will vote.

Earlier this week, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) would say only that he and Pompeo had a good meeting. Pompeo was also scheduled to meet with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Wednesday.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who is up for reelection this year, said over the weekend that he would oppose Pompeo’s bid. Kaine said that Pompeo “would exacerbate President Trump’s weaknesses rather than uphold our diplomatic legacy” — particularly when it comes to the use of force in approaching Iran.

Pompeo was grilled last week by every Democratic member of the committee, as well as Paul, during his 5½-hour confirmation hearing. Many senators questioned whether he would stand up to the president on matters such as ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran or opening talks with North Korea — or whether he would simply approve the president’s predilections to stay in his good graces.

Separately on Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that it would hold a confirmation hearing May 9 for Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee to take over for Pompeo as CIA director. Haspel is currently deputy director.

Haspel’s nomination is facing opposition from some senators who have questioned her role in destroying videotapes of brutal interrogations conducted by the agency.

In conversations with senators and their staff members ahead of Haspel’s confirmation hearing, she has acknowledged that she drafted a cable in 2005 ordering CIA officers to destroy tapes of the interrogations of two suspected terrorists. The interrogation sessions included waterboarding, which is widely considered a form of torture.

Haspel has said that she wrote the cable at the instruction of her boss, who was then in charge of the CIA’s clandestine operations and ultimately gave the order to destroy the tapes.

Shane Harris, Seung Min Kim and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered Pompeo’s nomination to be CIA director in 2017. The nomination was considered and voted on by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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