Pompeo Poised to Lose Panel's Vote and Then Win in Full Senate

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(Bloomberg) -- Mike Pompeo may fail to win approval from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be the next secretary of state. It would be an unprecedented slight, but it probably won’t matter.

With Republican Rand Paul and Democrats on the panel opposed to making the CIA director the top U.S. diplomat, the committee may vote narrowly against President Donald Trump’s nominee on Monday evening. Republican leaders have vowed to bring the nomination before the full Senate, where Pompeo on Monday appeared to lock up enough support to become the 70th secretary of state by week’s end.

Three Democratic senators from states that Trump won in 2016 -- Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota -- have said they’ll join most Republicans in supporting Pompeo on the Senate floor.

With the committee vote in doubt, Trump lashed out Monday morning in a Twitter posting at Democrats as “obstructionists” he said are blocking his nominees. “Hard to believe Obstructionists May vote against Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State. The Dems will not approve hundreds of good people, including the Ambassador to Germany. They are maxing out the time on approval process for all, never happened before. Need more Republicans!”

Some lawmakers question whether Pompeo, a hard-liner who came to Washington as a Tea Party congressman, has the temperament for diplomacy, but he has one significant advantage -- Trump’s confidence in him. Unlike his fired predecessor Rex Tillerson, Pompeo can be expected to convey the president’s messages to the world, and he may be able to get Trump to heed sometimes unwelcome messages from other world leaders and lawmakers.

“The most important thing for a secretary of state is to be perceived as speaking for the president,” said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was a State Department official under President George W. Bush. “This is all about: Do you have the president’s trust, and can you demonstrate you have his trust?”

‘Proxy’ for Trump

The divisions over Pompeo reflect the conflicts over Trump and his “America First” foreign policy. “I realize my Democratic friends in many cases feel like that in supporting Pompeo, it’s a proxy for support of the Trump administration policies, which many of them abhor,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, who has often been unsparing in his criticism of the president, said last week.

Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement last week that he’ll vote against Pompeo because of “egregious statements” he’s made in the past about Muslims and human rights for women and gays and a “preference for military action before exhausting diplomacy.”

Colin Powell was confirmed as secretary by unanimous voice vote in 2001, while Hillary Clinton and John Kerry cleared the Senate by votes of 94-3 and 94-2. Yet Tillerson was confirmed on a party-line vote of 56-43.

“At some point Democrats will have to decide whether they love their country more than they hate this president,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Fox News on Monday.

There’s just one instance where any cabinet member has been confirmed after an unfavorable vote in committee -- Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace in 1945, according to the Senate Historical Office.

With a razor-thin Republican majority in the Senate and Democrats largely opposed to Pompeo’s nomination, the White House has been playing up his readiness for the job, casting him as an already crucial member of Trump’s foreign-policy circle who sees him most mornings to help deliver the intelligence community’s classified daily briefing.

Korea Trip

The administration underscored that point with the disclosure last week that Pompeo made a secret trip to North Korea over Easter weekend to meet with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

Democrat Donnelly said in a statement Monday that success in planned talks between Trump and Kim “will require a comprehensive strategy and a full team on the field, including an effective State Department.”

After Trump announced in a tweet in March that he was firing Tillerson and nominating Pompeo, his chances for confirmation were considered tenuous enough that 45Committee, an advocacy group that backs the president, began running commercials to press wavering Democratic senators in states that voted for Trump to vote for his confirmation. That included Manchin who said in a tweet Monday that he’s now decided to vote for the nominee.

“After meeting with Mike Pompeo, discussing his foreign policy perspectives, & considering his distinguished time as CIA Director & his exemplary career in public service, I will vote to confirm Mike Pompeo to be our next Secretary of State,” Manchin said.

Other moderate Democrats have said they’re keeping an open mind on Pompeo. Among them are Doug Jones of Alabama and Mark Warner of Virginia, who as the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee says he has a strong working relationship with Pompeo.

Late last week, Pompeo was still making the rounds on Capitol Hill, speaking with senators who still haven’t committed, including Warner and Jeff Flake of Arizona, the only Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee who’s undecided.

Remedial Work

As secretary of state, Pompeo, 54, would have some remedial work to do with the Foreign Relations Committee, which oversees the State Department and its budget.

“There’s traditionally been a very close partnership between the State Department and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” Alterman said. Failing to win the panel’s vote of approval “is not a lethal wound, but it’s one that leaves a scar,” he said.

Ultimately, the committee’s vote on Pompeo will be “largely irrelevant in the near future,” said Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “In the end, a secretary of state is a secretary of state whether by one vote or 100.”

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