By Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post
Former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex W. Tillerson appears last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his confirmation hearing. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
When President-elect Donald Trump first nominated Rex W. Tillerson for secretary of state, several Democratic aides predicted that he would be advanced to the floor without a positive vote from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They might have pegged the committee just right.
Tillerson’s stumbling during his confirmation hearing left Democrats angry (especially over his refusal to own up to past lobbying against sanctions on Russia) and Republicans somewhere between annoyed and unenthusiastic. Tillerson’s lack of directness and depth of understanding has made mustering enthusiasm for him difficult. (One wonders what Robert Gates, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley saw in him that impressed them enough to recommend him for arguably the most important Cabinet position.)
On CNN, chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who did everything but race around to the witness table to answer Tillerson’s questions for him, seemed to confirm that the committee may well lack a majority for Tillerson. He said, “I plan on moving Tillerson to the floor. Without getting into all the machinations, I would expect there to be a vote of Rex Tillerson on the floor and I expect him to be confirmed.” Corker has every right to invoke that rarely deployed procedure.
A 2015 Congressional Research Service paper explained:
A committee considering a nomination has four options. It may report the nomination to the Senate favorably, unfavorably, or without recommendation, or it may choose to take no action at all. It is more common for a committee to take no action on a nomination than to report unfavorably. Particularly for policymaking positions, committees sometimes report a nomination favorably, subject to the commitment of the nominee to testify before a Senate committee. Sometimes, committees choose to report a nomination without recommendation. Even if a majority of Senators on a committee do not agree that a nomination should be reported favorably, a majority might agree to report a nomination without a recommendation in order to permit a vote by the whole Senate. It is rare for the full Senate to consider a nomination if a committee chooses not to report it and the committee is not discharged by unanimous consent.
In the case of John Bolton, the committee in 2005 voted 10-8 to advance his nomination as United Nations ambassador without a positive recommendation. At the time when the filibuster was still in place for executive nominations, he failed to win confirmation on the floor and instead was given a recess appointment.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) remains the key figure on Tillerson. He grilled Tillerson at the hearing, often displaying extreme frustration when Tillerson refused to answer straightforward questions, especially in the human rights realm. (South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, by contrast, crisply answered that yes, Russia and the Philippines had violated human rights, and yes, sanctions on Russia should continue.) Rubio still says he has not decided. Rubio finds himself caught between a desire to show spine in standing up to the president-elect and his need to stay in the good graces of the GOP base. If he knows the nomination will advance either way, he may figure a “no” vote would draw Trump’s ire for nothing. Alternatively, he may figure that if the nomination goes through anyway, he can make a show of principle without dooming the nomination.
If Tillerson advances, all eyes turn to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).”I am very concerned about someone who took a friendship award from Vladimir Putin, who’s a butcher. Actually what Vladimir Putin is, he’s a KGB agent. That’s all,” McCain told CBS on Wednesday evening. “I’ve had concerns and I’ve had several conversations with him.” On Monday, he had said he was leaning in favor of Tillerson. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) usually, but not invariably, vote in lock step on major foreign policy matters.
In short, Rubio, Graham and McCain could sink Tillerson. Doing so would express a strong preference for a nominee who can clearly articulate American values, has a foreign policy track record and/or does not give the perception that Vladimir Putin got the U.S. secretary of state he wanted. All three must wrestle with the concern that Trump could nominate someone worse, someone who views Russia precisely as Trump does or who expresses no appreciation whatsoever for our alliances or human rights. They must weigh competing concerns about holding up a key appointment, enraging Trump, sending a message to the new administration and seeming to embolden Putin. We should remember that in all of U.S. history, the Senate has turned down only nine executive branch nominations. Chances still favor Tillerson, but only barely.
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