December 14, 2016
Senate Republicans on Tuesday offered encouraging words for President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the State Department, suggesting Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s business dealings with Moscow might not upset his nomination.
While Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee that will vote to confirm Tillerson, voiced “serious concerns” about the nod, others in his conference voiced approval.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) announced their support, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who challenged Trump in the primary and is a frequent antagonist of GOP leadership, praised Tillerson’s “expertise” and “incredible career.”
Republican Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), who like Rubio sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, both said they would keep an open mind on Tillerson.
In a statement, Flake said that the support Tillerson has received from former GOP Secretaries of State James Baker and Condoleezza Rice as well as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates carry “considerable weight.”
The libertarian-leaning Paul in an interview on Fox News said his top priority was to steer Trump away from nominating former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, an outspoken supporter of the Iraq War, to Foggy Bottom.
“I’m keeping an open mind,” he said of Tillerson.
Senior Republican aides say they expect the Senate to confirm Tillerson next month, citing the support he has from GOP foreign policy heavyweights.
Tillerson also has strong support from the business community and is well-versed in the art of congressional testimony, having appeared before lawmakers more than six years ago to testify about the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The fact that you have a couple of Republicans expressing concerns about the nominee shouldn’t scandalize anyone. That’s why we have hearings,” said a senior Senate Republican aide.
“The guy has a tremendous record of accomplishment, a tremendous record of dealing with people at a high level on the world stage,” the aide added. “My guess is that he’ll end get up getting confirmed, but not without some turbulence.”
Republican aides said Tuesday that Cruz’s support for Tillerson is important because the Texas senator has emerged as one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s toughest critics in the chamber.
Cruz has called Putin a “KGB thug” and his presidential campaign criticized Trump earlier this year for praising the Russian leader.
On Tuesday, Cruz focused his statement on Tillerson’s business acumen, touting his “deep expertise on energy issues” and experience negotiating complex business deals across the world.
The Foreign Relations Committee is gearing up to hold hearings on Tillerson in early January.
Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who was in the running for the top post at State, on Tuesday called Tillerson “a very impressive individual” with an “extraordinary working knowledge of the world.”
Tillerson will need a majority vote to win confirmation, but the GOP holds just 52 seats in the chamber.
If Democrats were to hold the line against him, just a few lost Republican votes could prevent his confirmation.
No GOP senators have come out and opposed Tillerson’s nomination, though Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), like Rubio, have raised concerns.
“I have concerns about what kind of business we do with a butcher, a murderer and a thug,” McCain told National Public Radio on Tuesday, referring to Putin.
Graham said “there are many questions which must be answered,” citing what he called Tillerson’s “extensive business dealings” with Putin’s government and his opposition to placing sanctions on Russia.
Rubio argued Tuesday that the next secretary of State should view the world with “moral clarity,” be “free of potential conflicts of interest” and have “a clear sense of America’s interests.”
It’s not a sure thing that Democrats would unite against Tillerson.
Several Democrat senators are up for reelection in 2018 in states that Trump dominated in the presidential election. That could make it harder for them to cast votes against a Trump Cabinet nominee.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who flirted with taking a spot in Trump’s Cabinet, said Tuesday he is inclined to give the president-elect wide latitude in picking his team.
“As West Virginia’s former governor, I was able to select members of my Cabinet and key advisors, and I have always believed that a president should be able to do the same,” he said in a statement, adding that he will use the confirmation process “to ask tough questions.”
Incoming Senate Democrat Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is already directing fire at the nominee’s close relationship with Putin, as well as his opposition to Russian sanctions and the April international climate accord signed in Paris.
He has asked for Republican and Democrat colleagues to be “given ample time to study Mr. Tillerson’s entire record,” a sign Democrats may try to delay the nomination beyond the first several weeks of the new Congress.
Tillerson, who has served as chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp. since 2006, is a political outsider compared to other candidates who were in the running to head the State Department, but he has decades of experience dealing with Washington policymakers.
He said during an interview before the Economic Club of Washington last year that he’s probably “not qualified” for government service, expressing frustration with gridlock that stymied the Keystone XL pipeline. But he is familiar with the workings of the executive and legislative branches.
“I’ve been coming to this place for 30 years, working with our government trying to formulate good policies. I do understand this place,” he said in comments reported by KTUU, a television station based in Anchorage, Alaska.
He has proved adept at skirmishing with lawmakers in committee testimony, such as a when he defended high oil prices before a Senate committee in May of 2011 and tangled with former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), then-chairman of a House subcommittee on energy and the environment, during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in June of 2010.
Tillerson has a thin margin for approval on the Foreign Relations panel, which includes 10 Republicans and 9 Democrats. If Rubio votes against Tillerson, his nomination would be reported to the floor without a favorable recommendation.
That’s a rare occurrence. In 2005, the committee sent Bolton’s nomination without a recommendation for its approval. But only four other well-known nominees have moved to the floor without a positive recommendation since the mid-1980s, according to The New York Times.