Tiller­son fails to win over key Repub­li­can sen­a­tors

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By James Os­borne

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.”

Steve Helber / As­so­ci­ated Press

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., gives Rex Tiller­son a pat of re­as­sur­ance af­ter his tes­ti­mony.

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