Tillerson fails to win over key Republican senators
WASHINGTON — Rex Tillerson’s confirmation as secretary of state seemed less than certain the day after a contentious Senate hearing, as key Republican lawmakers remain wary of his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and lukewarm on his nomination to the top Cabinet position.
With a vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee expected next week, attention was focused on Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who expressed reservations about Tillerson shortly after he was named by President-elect Donald Trump.
He clashed with the former Exxon Mobil chief executive during the hearing over Russia’s bombing of civilians in Syria in support of the dictator Bashar Assad, the characterization of Putin as a war criminal, and Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women.
As CEO of one of the world’s biggest oil companies, Tillerson did business in Russia, Saudi Arabia and other nations criticized for their human rights records.
“This is a very important decision and I recognize the partisan split on the committee and what it means,” Rubio told CNN after the hearing. “I’m prepared to do what’s right.”
If Rubio votes against Tillerson — along with all the Democrats on the committee — that would leave the Texas oilman on the losing end of an 11-10 vote. While embarrassing for Tillerson, even were the committee not to recommend Tillerson for confirmation, his nomination could still be sent to the Senate floor for a full vote.
Around Washington on Thursday, hallways were abuzz with speculation on whether Rubio and other Republican senators would defy Trump before he even takes office.
The tough questioning of Tillerson on Wednesday stood out in contrast to treatment of past secretary of state nominees, who were typically from the political and foreign policy establishment, but its significance is tough to read, said Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
“One way to look at their tough questions was they just wanted to use the hearing to show their displeasure with Tillerson,” he said. “It might be they vented and now that’s it.”
The last time a president’s Cabinet nominee was not confirmed by the Senate was in 2009 when Tom Daschle, then the Democratic senator for South Dakota, withdrew his name for consideration as secretary of health and human services after it came to light that he had not paid his income taxes from 2005 to 2007, according to the Senate Historical Office. Without a similar controversy, chances are Tillerson will be confirmed, Jones said, speculating that Democrats from fossil fuelrich states like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota might lend support.
Tillerson’s long relationship with Russia as an Exxon executive, however, has divided Republicans. His tendency during Wednesday’s hearing to defer judgment on matters abroad until he was granted access to classified U.S. intelligence reports further rankled his GOP critics.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has questioned Tillerson’s relationship with Putin, told CNN that Tillerson’s response to questions about the Russian hacking of the Democratic Party ahead of the presidential election was “fuzzy.”
“If he doesn’t clear that up, it would be a problem, and I think he can clear it up and he needs to clear it up,” he said.
Other GOP lawmakers have come out strongly for Tillerson, however. Texas Sens. John Cornyn, the majority whip, and Ted Cruz have both put their support behind the former Exxon chief, sitting on either side of him at the start of Wednesday’s hearing.
“Mr. Tillerson understands how to separate friendships and business,” Cornyn said. “He knows who he works for.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said after the hearing, “I thought he handled himself well.”
Meanwhile, Democrats continue to examine — and criticize — Tillerson’s record. At least two, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., have said they plan to vote against Tillerson. In a tweet Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, “Tillerson hearing raises real questions as to whether (Trump) & cabinet are prepared to stand up to Putin, Iran & represent US interests.”
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said late Wednesday that he would present Tillerson with more questions while “consulting with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”
“There’s no doubt that Mr. Tillerson has stamina, is well prepared, and has knowledge of the world,” Cardin said in a statement. “But I am troubled by his confusing statements about how Exxon handled U.S. sanctions and by his refusal to directly acknowledge or even accept welldocumented and verified truths such as Russia’s war crimes in Syria.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., gives Rex Tillerson a pat of reassurance after his testimony.