Washington (AFP) – The powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee was expected Monday to oppose President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, in an unprecedented rebuke that could unsettle delicate US negotiations with North Korea.
That vote, scheduled to take place at about 5:00 pm (2100 GMT), would not end the nomination, but would put a negative recommendation in the hands of the closely-divided full Senate — where his approval is not guaranteed.
The White House pressured senators to endorse Pompeo, currently the CIA director, with Trump blasting Democrats as “obstructionists” and his spokeswoman Sarah Sanders accusing them of playing “political games” with the crucial cabinet post.
But the committee, with 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, appeared set to vote against the nomination, with Republican maverick Rand Paul set to join all the Democrats in opposition.
“Hard to believe Obstructionists may vote against Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State. The Dems will not approve hundreds of good people,” Trump tweeted early Monday.
“We certainly hope that some members will change their minds,” Sanders said on Fox News.
“At some point, Democrats have to decide whether they love this country more than they hate this president. And they have to decide that they want to put the safety and the security and the diplomacy of our country ahead of their own political games.”
Pompeo would become the first secretary of state-designate on record to be rejected by the committee, according to the Senate History Office.
Passage by the full Senate seems likely but not assured: approving a rejected nominee on the Senate floor hasn’t happened since 1945.
With Paul voting against Pompeo, and senior Republican Senator John McCain ailing and unable to vote, the White House will need all other Republicans and at least one Democrat to win the vote.
Last week, Pompeo was on Capitol Hill lobbying for support, and Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp announced she would vote for him. Several other Democrats have left open the possibility of supporting Pompeo.
– CIA chief has Trump’s ear –
Pompeo, who has served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency since the beginning of the Trump administration, has become one of the president’s closest advisors.
He would replace Rex Tillerson, the former oil executive who was fired in March after a very rocky relationship with the White House and a management approach that left the State Department understaffed and demoralized.
Pompeo has played a central role in talks with North Korea in which Washington hopes to persuade Pyongyang to roll back its menacing nuclear weapons program.
He secretly travelled to Pyongyang around the end of March to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who is expected to hold a summit with Trump, perhaps in early June.
But Democrats have assailed Pompeo for a record of bellicose statements which they say are at odds with his prospective job as the top US diplomat, and also have cited anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ statements he has made in the past.
“I remain concerned that Dir. Pompeo won’t challenge the president in critical moments,” Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted on Friday.
“On vital decisions facing our country, Dir. Pompeo seems less concerned with rule of law & partnership with our allies & more inclined to emphasize unilateral action & the use of force.”
Republican Senator Tom Cotton told CBS’s “Face the Nation” program on Sunday that the vote is “driven 100 percent by politics.”
“Mike is committed to diplomatic solutions everywhere,” Cotton said, adding that Pompeo “recognizes that the credible threat of military force is essential to getting diplomatic solutions.”