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 for about 5:00 pm (2100 GMT), would not sink the nomination outright. Pompeo’s odds of confirmation by the full Senate actually received a boost Monday when two Democrats announced their support for the 54-year-old.
But it would put a negative recommendation before the closely-divided chamber, bruising the standing of the likely top diplomat as Washington addresses international challenges including North Korea’s nuclear threat, the Iran nuclear deal, unrest in Syria, and Russian election meddling.
The White House had 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 prepared 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 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.”
The needle did move in Pompeo’s favor when Senate Democrats Joe Manchin and Joe Donnelly joined colleague Heidi Heitkamp in announcing their support for Pompeo.
All three Democrats face tough November re-election battles in states that Trump won in 2016.
Donnelly said Pompeo, a former congressman from Kansas, was “capable of advancing US interests.”
“I strongly believe that a successful, peaceful outcome will require a comprehensive strategy and a full team on the field, including an effective State Department, to leverage all available tools,” he said in a statement.
Pompeo appeared on track for the dubious distinction of becoming the first secretary of state-designate on record to be rejected by the committee, according to the Senate Historical Office.
Despite the increased likelihood that Pompeo will squeak through the full Senate later this week, confirmation is no guarantee: approving a rejected cabinet-level nominee on the Senate floor hasn’t happened since 1945.
With Paul against Pompeo, and cancer-stricken Senator John McCain unable to vote, the White House can afford only one other Republican defector.
– 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 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.
Others, like Senator Maggie Hassan, said they worried Pompeo was too close politically to the president to stand up to him if need be.
Hassan said Monday she was “concerned that Mr. Pompeo would be unable to rise above a partisan perspective when making foreign policy decisions.”
Republican Senator Tom Cotton warned on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program Sunday that the vote is “driven 100 percent by politics,” and that Pompeo “recognizes that the credible threat of military force is essential to getting diplomatic solutions.”