Mike Pompeo On Track To Be Confirmed As Secretary Of State

Apr 23, 2018
Originally published on April 23, 2018 8:28 pm

Updated at 6:35 p.m. ET

Mike Pompeo is on track to become secretary of state after a key Republican senator gave a last-minute endorsement of the CIA director.

The secretary of state-designate's nomination was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Monday night on a party-line vote. The vote was 10 Republicans for Pompeo, nine Democrats against. One Democrat voted present.

There was some drama around the vote. Initially, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. opposed the nomination of Pompeo but changed his mind shortly before the committee met. With all of the panel's Democrats opposed Pompeo and one Republican member unable to make it back in time, the stage was set for a tie vote on the committee until Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., changed his vote to present, enabling the nomination to advance.

Earlier Monday, Pompeo's nomination looked like it would be unfavorably reported by the committee because no Democrat on the 11-10 panel would support him and neither did Paul, R-Ky.

Minutes before the committee meeting, Paul issued a statement saying that he would back Pompeo.

"After calling continuously for weeks for Director Pompeo to support President Trump's belief that the Iraq war was a mistake, and that it is time to leave Afghanistan, today I received confirmation that Director Pompeo agrees with President Trump," said Paul.

Pompeo faced unified opposition from Democrats on the panel. On Friday, Coons came me out against the nomination, stating that Pompeo — whom Democrats regard as a military hawk — will embolden "President Trump's most belligerent and dangerous instincts."

Democrats also point to Pompeo's past positions, including his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal when he served in Congress, as evidence that he is not qualified to be America's top diplomat.

"I cannot overlook grave doubts about his anti-diplomacy disposition," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in a statement opposing Pompeo, even though he was one of 14 Democrats who voted in favor of his previous nomination for his current post at CIA.

An unfavorable recommendation out of committee would have had no practical effect. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., still intends to hold a full Senate confirmation vote this week, but the absence of an affirmative committee vote would have been unprecedented for a State Department nominee, according to the Senate Historical Office.

"We're going to vote on Monday night, and I agree with you that it doesn't look promising as far as an affirmative vote," Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters last Friday. He chalked up Democratic opposition to partisan election-year politics and not a statement on Pompeo's qualifications.

"It's just the environment we're in. The left, the base on the Democratic side abhors the president, and I realize many of them just don't want to do anything that shows a proxy of support for Trump by voting for his secretary of state," Corker said. "I really do think Pompeo is highly qualified, and I think in their heart of hearts, truth-serum wise, [Democrats] would probably agree."

One Democrat, North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, announced Friday she would back Pompeo's nomination. On Monday, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Joe Donnelly also announced they would vote for Pompeo, signaling he very likely has the support he needs on the Senate floor.

"Pompeo demonstrated during this nomination process and during our meeting in March that he is committed to empowering the diplomats at the State Department so they can do their jobs in advancing American interests," Heitkamp said in a statement.

With a narrow Republican 51-49 majority (Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is absent because of illness), McConnell now very likely has 53 votes in favor of the nomination. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has not publicly committed to supporting Pompeo, but his GOP colleagues are confident he ultimately will vote for his nomination.

Historically, secretaries of state have enjoyed large, bipartisan margins of support. Senators have generally held the view that presidents are allowed to have the Cabinet of their choosing as long as there are no glaring problems with the nominees. Both Secretaries Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were confirmed with 94 votes in support under President Barack Obama. Secretary Condoleezza Rice was confirmed with 85 votes, and Secretary Colin Powell was so popular it didn't even require a roll call — the Senate approved it by a voice vote — under President George W. Bush.

President Trump has not fared as well. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson won approval with just 56 votes in favor of his nomination, the most votes against a state nominee in Senate history. Later this week, Pompeo might test that record.

Republicans like Corker shrug at the prospect of a historically low vote.

"I mean, at the end of the day, whether the committee gives a negative recommendation and you still get 50 votes on the floor, even if it takes the vice president, you're still secretary of state and all of this dissipates," he said.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're also following news here in Washington. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted this evening to approve President Trump's pick for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, but not without a bit of last-minute drama. First Kentucky Republican Rand Paul switched his vote. Then Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson had to miss the vote entirely. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is here to sort through what this means for Trump's pick to be the nation's top diplomat. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: There was a lot of confusion before the committee voted to approve Pompeo. What happened?

SNELL: The drama started just a few minutes before the hearing. First Rand Paul announced on Twitter that he no longer planned to oppose Pompeo. Then some senators were stuck in traffic, and then it appeared Senator Johnny Isakson was going to have to miss the vote entirely.

Vote was stuck at a tie until Delaware Democrat Chris Coons offered to switch his vote from yes to present so that Isakson, who's been ailing ever since he had back surgery last year, wouldn't have to come and do a vote at 11:30 at night. After about an hour of waiting, the clerk finally called the vote, and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker thanked everybody, said they were done. And here's how it went.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Eleven ayes, nine noes and one present.

BOB CORKER: We'll report him to the floor in a positive manner. I want to thank the members of this committee for the diligence they've displayed. I think we've done the right thing together. I want to thank Senator Coons for being a statesman.

SHAPIRO: We'd been reporting for a long time that he might not clear the committee because a Republican senator, Rand Paul, was going to join the Democrats in voting no. What made Rand Paul change his mind today?

SNELL: It was a pretty dramatic flip. Up until today and actually just a few minutes before the vote, Paul said he was going to oppose Pompeo over his position on the Iraq War, his support for more surveillance databases and his position on use of force in North Korea and Iran. Then right before they were supposed to vote, he put out those tweets saying that he spoke with the president directly several times today and spoke with Pompeo, and he was convinced that Pompeo had changed his mind on those positions. Here's how he explained the change in the committee room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAND PAUL: I have changed my mind. I have decided to go ahead and vote for director Pompeo because he's assured me that he's learned the lesson.

SNELL: This isn't a huge shock, but it's a game-changer for Pompeo. If Paul had voted and followed through to say no, Pompeo would have been the first secretary of state nominee in modern history to go to a vote in the full Senate without the support of that committee.

SHAPIRO: Pompeo has been controversial for reasons beyond those raised by Rand Paul. Remind us why this has been such a contentious nomination.

SNELL: Like most things in Congress, it's a little bit of politics and a little bit of policy. Republicans have accused Democrats of basically throwing Pompeo under the bus. They voted 66 to 32 to approve him as CIA director, which is the job he has now. Democrats say that secretary of state is just a different job, and they worry about his policies on things like his opposition to gay marriage - how that might affect many of gay diplomats that are serving all across the world. And they worry about that idea of wanting to have strikes in North Korea and Iran. He used to support those strikes. And during his confirmation process, Pompeo said that he had changed his mind, and he favors diplomacy now. And Democrats say they don't know what to trust.

SHAPIRO: After Pompeo, there are other controversial nominees headed to the Senate in the next few weeks. Senators have raised concerns about White House doctor Ronny Jackson, who's nominated to head the Department of Veterans Affairs; the deputy director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, who's nominated to lead that agency. Are they facing the same sort of risks that Pompeo has been dealing with?

SNELL: They both definitely face risks, but they have different risks. And it's kind of too soon to tell what will happen. Jackson gets a hearing on Wednesday, and those concerns are about his record basically that he doesn't have enough experience to run a big bureaucratic agency like the VA. And those are fairly bipartisan concerns. Here's what Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said earlier today at a campaign stop in Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM KAINE: Nothing down on the individual. I mean, as a physician, I don't think people have questions. But it's - knowing the size and scope of the challenges and VA's size of the operation and what we need to do - think there's a lot of skepticism.

SNELL: That's a pretty common complaint. People say that he seems like a nice guy, seems like a good doctor. But the VA is troubled and needs somebody who can run a really big organization. Concerns about Haspel are also bipartisan but very different. Senators say they want to ask her about her involvement in brutal CIA interrogations of terror suspects. And one of the Republicans who wants some answers is, again, Rand Paul.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Kelsey Snell - thanks so much, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.