(Bloomberg) -- Exxon Mobil Corp. chief Rex Tillerson’s chances of becoming secretary of state rest on a razor-thin Republican advantage in the Senate, where a small handful of hawkish Republicans who think he’s too cozy with Russia’s Vladimir Putin might seek to block him.
Already, three Republicans -- John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- have said they will press Tillerson on his close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rubio said Tuesday he wants Tillerson to show that he has “moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest” and “will be a forceful advocate for America’s foreign policy goals.”
But it would be highly unusual for a Republican-controlled Senate to reject nominees of its own party’s president, particularly for such a critical Cabinet post. GOP senators will be very reluctant to pick such a high-profile fight with President-elect Donald Trump early on, and there is a long Senate tradition of deference to a president being able to select his or her own Cabinet.
There are early signs that deference would prevail and Tillerson could go on to become the nation’s top diplomat, although he will still face a potentially messy confirmation process with Democrats ready to attack his and Exxon’s record on Russia, climate change and the environment.
Tillerson quickly won praise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who lauded his experience in strategic planning and "managing international partnerships and risk.” Even longtime Trump skeptics like Jeff Flake of Arizona said they were open to the choice.
But this isn’t a traditional year, and there are two main ways that Tillerson could be blocked.
First, a single Republican senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will consider the nomination -- Rubio, perhaps -- could keep the nomination from reaching the Senate floor, if Democrats stick together. That’s because the 10-9 Republican majority on the committee leaves no margin for error.
Another Republican on the panel, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, declined to comment Tuesday, but had said he was prepared to oppose other possible Trump picks for the post. McConnell could choose to bypass or overrule the committee, but that would be an unprecedented move for a cabinet nomination.
Second, even if Tillerson makes it to the Senate floor, it would take just three Republicans to sink his nomination, as long as all Democrats hold together.
“Based upon his extensive business dealings with the Putin government and his previous opposition of efforts to impose sanctions on the Russian government, there are many questions which must be answered,” Graham said in a statement Tuesday. “I expect the U.S.-Russian relationship to be front and center in his confirmation process.”
Russia ties won’t be the only potential obstacle for Tillerson. He has long faced scrutiny over Exxon’s longstanding reluctance to acknowledge climate change, while Democrats have been critical of the oil giant’s environmental record. Tillerson’s ties to dictators, Arab oil sheiks and regimes accused of human rights violations could also face scrutiny.
No Democrat has yet praised Tillerson’s possible rise to a post that would make him America’s top diplomat. The incoming Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, said he had "serious concerns" and signaled a lengthy confirmation process.
“The members of the Foreign Relations Committee, both Democrat and Republican, should be given ample time to study Mr. Tillerson’s entire record and worldview and then ask several rounds of extensive questions,” Schumer said Tuesday in a statement.
Tillerson is no stranger to Congress. He has appeared several times before congressional hearings, including on the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico and on tax incentives for oil companies.
Unlike some other candidates for the job considered by Trump, such as former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Tillerson’s own views on a wide range of foreign policy issues are largely unknown.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, said Tuesday that he’s highly concerned about the pick and questions whether the Exxon Mobil executive can pivot from a role leading a multinational corporation to that of an international leader.
“We are interested in knowing the relationship between Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Putin -- whether Mr. Tillerson understands his responsibilities and what Russia is doing in so many places in the world against U.S. interests,” Cardin said Tuesday in an interview on Bloomberg Television.
“We have sanctions against Russia,” he added. “Mr. Tillerson came out against those sanctions.”
Tillerson, who reaches Exxon’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in March, would be the first oil executive and the second Texan to serve as secretary of state. If confirmed, the State Department would be led by a man whose ties to Putin go back almost two decades at a time when possible Russian interference in the U.S. election is under scrutiny.
In Tillerson’s favor, Flake, a frequent Trump critic who is on the Foreign Relations panel, tweeted Tuesday that early endorsements of the executive are encouraging.
“The fact that Condi Rice, James Baker and Bob Gates are recommending Tillerson carries considerable weight,” Flake said Tuesday in a posting on Twitter. “I look forward to the hearings.” Gates noted that Exxon is a client of RiceHadleyGates, the consultancy in which he and Rice are principals.
It’s possible Tillerson will ultimately pull in some Democratic support. Democrats may want to save their battles, and are already promising bruising fights over Trump’s nominations of former Goldman Sachs executive Steven Mnuchin for Treasury secretary, Representative Tom Price, an Obamacare foe, to lead the Department of Health and Human Services and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
So far, though, Democratic backing is elusive.
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, a top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, hinted at his opposition earlier Tuesday. He alluded to charges by environmental groups that Exxon knew about the harmful effects of fossil fuels as many as four decades ago and never informed investors or the public.
“Tillerson for Secretary of State! What’s next -- climate change deniers for EPA & Energy? Oh wait....” he tweeted.
Another Democratic panel member, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, in a statement accused Tillerson of having a too-cozy relationship with Putin and working against U.S. policy in Iraq when Exxon signed an oil agreement that Murphy said worked against American efforts to unify Iraq under a central government in Baghdad.
“There is no doubt Rex Tillerson is a successful businessman and a very smart person,” Murphy said. “But he has proven, many times, his willingness to put oil profits before national interests, and handing him the keys of U.S. foreign policy is a recipe for disaster.”
Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, another Foreign Relations member, added, “ExxonMobil’s global drilling interests, especially in Russia and the Ukraine, raise serious questions about conflicts of interest for Mr. Tillerson. Donald Trump doesn’t want to drain the swamp, he wants to drill in it.”
Adding to the mix is the potential for human rights concerns to be raised with an executive of a company with business dealings in Africa and elsewhere. Tillerson also could face questions about his views on U.S. energy independence; he said in 2012 he seeks a reliable, affordable energy supply with less concern about whether the source is domestic or foreign. His stance as a free-trader also puts him at odds with Trump and may be raised as an issue.
There’s also a looming inquiry into Russian meddling in the election. The Washington Post reported on Friday that the CIA has told senators that Putin’s government was actively seeking to help Trump win the election -- a step beyond an earlier finding that the goal was to undermine the credibility of the U.S. political process.
President Barack Obama has ordered a full review of the evidence of Russian hacking. Trump has rejected the idea that Russia has been pinpointed as the source of the hacks of Democratic Party servers.
McCain, who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee, has asked Graham to lead a new subcommittee that will probe the allegations.