Can Pompeo Win Over Foreign Relations Democrats?

He may be at risk of receiving the committee’s first unfavorable secretary of State vote in the modern era.

Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo leaves a meeting with Sen. Angus King on Capitol Hill Monday.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
April 11, 2018, 8 p.m.

When Mike Pompeo takes his seat for his confirmation hearing Thursday, there are two Democrats he may have to go out of his way to court: Sens. Tim Kaine and Jeanne Shaheen.

Of the 10 Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the senators from Virginia and New Hampshire were the only two to vote for Pompeo’s nomination to be CIA director last year. This time around, with Pompeo nominated for secretary of State, they could be crucial swing votes on a panel where Republicans hold a single-seat advantage, as one GOP senator, Rand Paul, has already come out against Pompeo.

If Kaine and Shaheen flip their votes and join all their Democratic colleagues and Paul in opposition, that could result in the committee reporting Pompeo unfavorably or without recommendation, which could harm his chances to advance through the full Senate. The Foreign Relations panel has not reported a secretary of State nominee unfavorably since at least 1953, according to the U.S. Senate Library.

After holding one-on-one meetings with Pompeo Tuesday, Kaine and Shaheen said they are going to wait until after Thursday’s hearing to make a final decision. But the duo, along with their fellow committee Democrats, have expressed concerns over some of Pompeo’s more hawkish foreign policy views and questioned whether he will be an independent voice in a Trump administration that places a premium on loyalty.

Pompeo’s views on Iran and North Korea will certainly be in the spotlight Thursday, with the next certification deadlines for the nuclear deal with Tehran and a potential summit with Kim Jong-un on the docket next month. Pompeo has long been opposed to the Iran deal and has in the past signaled support for regime change in Pyongyang, areas that were worrisome for both Kaine and Shaheen.

Democrats are also expected to push Pompeo for a long-term strategy to deal with Russia and Syria. Trump suggested over Twitter Wednesday that he would launch a missile strike against the Syrian regime, a Russia ally, in retaliation for a chemical attack that left more than 40 civilians dead. Pompeo has said “it is difficult to imagine a stable Syria” with Bashar al-Assad in power.

Shaheen said she also intends to press him on whether he will follow through with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s redesign plans for the department. Democrats, as well as some Republicans, were critical of Tillerson for planning to dramatically slash the department’s budget and leaving several high-profile positions vacant.

“This is a very different job,” Shaheen said.

Aside from specific policy issues, Pompeo, a former House member and Army veteran, will also face questions about his credentials. While Kaine and Shaheen believed Pompeo had the background to head up the nation’s top intelligence agency, they weren’t confident that skill-set would translate to the diplomatic arena.

“I have questions about some of his statements as to whether he’s going to be pro-diplomacy,” Kaine said. “I think this president undercuts diplomacy, and I don’t want to have a secretary of State who doesn’t value diplomacy.”

Outside of Kaine and Shaheen, Pompeo will be hard-pressed to find Democratic support on the committee. The bar may be even higher for him now that Trump has installed another hawk, John Bolton, as his national security adviser.

“A lot of us are concerned about the combination of Pompeo and Bolton putting a set of military options on the table for the president that could do damage to our national security,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Foreign Relations Committee Democrat.

Paul predicted there would be more Democratic “no” votes on Pompeo than last time. But he said he doesn’t expect any other Republicans will join him in opposition, since he was the only Republican to vote against Pompeo for the CIA role. On the Foreign Relations panel, Sen. Jeff Flake, often a thorn in Trump’s side, has voiced some concerns with Pompeo, but isn’t expected to defect. “I still have some questions that he’s getting back to me on,” Flake said Tuesday.

Even if Pompeo receives an unfavorable committee vote, Senate leaders may still bring his nomination to the floor. Pompeo wouldn’t have much room for error there either, given the GOP’s slim 51-49 majority and Sen. John McCain’s current absence.

But aside from Kaine and Shaheen, there are 13 Democratic Senate caucus members who voted for Pompeo’s CIA nomination, including several red-state Democrats who might feel pressure to prove their bipartisan bona fides ahead of tough reelection battles this fall. Pompeo has met with several Democrats who do not serve on the Foreign Relations panel ahead of his hearing.

While some Democrats view Pompeo’s proximity to Trump negatively, Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said he anticipated that dynamic would result in a more “fulsome” and “educational” confirmation hearing than the one last year featuring Tillerson, who was not as close to the president. But Corker also added that Democrats may turn the hearing “into a proxy on just overall Trump policies, foreign policy-wise.”

Either way, Corker said he’s not worried about the prospect of an unfavorable committee vote for Pompeo.

“My job is to conduct a fair hearing, a thorough hearing, and then for me to vote how I want. My job is not be a whip,” Corker said. “However people want to vote, they can vote.”

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