Let the games … continue. There’s already been a considerable amount of game-playing surrounding the confirmation of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. Democrats have their first real opportunity to block a Donald Trump Cabinet appointee in a floor vote, and the first step is to tarnish Pompeo with a negative recommendation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Chair Bob Corker started the countdown today to a Monday committee vote:
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has set a vote for Monday on Mike Pompeo’s nomination as President Trump’s secretary of state.
Pompeo, who has made headlines in recent days for his secret trip to North Korea over Easter weekend, won the backing of the committee last year as CIA director but faces longer odds this time.
To secure the committee’s blessing, Pompeo will need at least one vote from the 10 Democrats on the 21-member panel. That’s because the day after Pompeo’s nomination was announced, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), formally stated his opposition to Pompeo’s bid.
It’s not just Paul now, either. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who plans to retire at the end of the year, stated that he’s not sure whether he’ll support Pompeo in committee or on the floor, either. That would force Corker to find two Democrats on the SFRC in order to get a positive recommendation for the full confirmation floor vote that Mitch McConnell will likely expedite, regardless of how the committee vote goes.
Needless to say, the likelihood of even getting one Democrat on the committee is rather low. Ranking member Bob Menendez has publicly stated his opposition to Pompeo, as have most of the other Democrats on the SFRC. That makes the necessity of shoring up the GOP position even more urgent, and Reason’s Robby Soave reports this morning that Trump himself has lobbied Paul to reconsider:
President Donald Trump is confident he will ultimately convince Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) to vote to confirm CIA Director Mike Pompeo, the president’s pick to be the next secretary of state. Trump told reporters that Paul “is a very special guy” who has “never let me down.” …
CNN reported that Trump called Paul yesterday and asked him to give Pompeo another chance:
Paul told reporters on Capitol Hill that Trump called him a “few minutes ago” and asked for him to meet with Pompeo and he will.
“I’m open to meeting right now and we’ll see what happens in the meeting,” he said with a smile, adding that no date had been set for the meeting.
The administration is hoping that Pompeo’s starring role in setting up peace talks with North Korea and dialing down the need for military action will appeal to Paul. If Paul flips back, one would presume that Flake would come along for the ride, leaving Corker with the majority he needs to avoid embarrassing the White House.
Either way, though, McConnell intends to have a floor vote on Pompeo. In a floor speech earlier today, McConnell insisted that a vote against Pompeo would be a vote against the diplomacy that naysayers claim they’re defending:
In recent days, the world learned Director Pompeo had undertaken initial conversations with representatives of North Korea, in an effort to bring Kim Jong Un to the table and discuss denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Pursued with clear-eyed realism and clear objectives, this is a worthy effort, and in the best interests of the United States, our allies, and the world.
Although every Commander-in-Chief has insisted it would be unacceptable for North Korea to obtain a nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, it is this administration that finds itself having to actually accomplish that objective. So as a matter of policy, I was encouraged by this news. Based on Director Pompeo’s impressive record at the CIA, the North Koreans undoubtedly view him as credible, determined, and insightful. The quiet nature of these discussions reflect their seriousness. …
I’ve recently heard some critics claim the Trump administration places too little emphasis on diplomacy. In truth, the public statements of Secretary Mattis, former Secretary Tillerson, and former national security advisor McMaster have signaled a clear preference for aggressive, realistic diplomacy over potentially risking American lives. But regardless, in confirming Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, the Senate can ensure the nation has a chief diplomat who enjoys the complete confidence of the president.
Those who claim to want a larger role for diplomacy should match those words with action and vote to approve him.
That will be just five minutes of a 30-hour debate sometime next week or the week after, regardless of what the SFRC does. But if Paul and Flake aren’t coming along, can Pompeo prevail? John McCain may or may not be around for the vote due to his health, and McCain might have reservations about Pompeo too [see update]. That leaves 48 Republicans and a two-vote gap for McConnell and Trump. Can they get two from Democrats?
The Hill’s Jordan Cainey reports that it’s possible:
Of the 15 minority members who backed Pompeo for CIA director, roughly half have now said they will oppose him for the State Department. Being the country’s top diplomat, they say, is vastly different from running a spy agency. …
Of the Senate Democrats who supported Pompeo’s CIA nomination, seven have yet to say how they’ll vote now: Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Minority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Mark Warner (Va.). King has also not said how he will vote.
Pompeo met with Warner and McCaskill on Wednesday and had previously met with Manchin and Heitkamp.
“Still working on it. … We had a good conversation. We’re having more of them,” Manchin said on Wednesday.
Four of these face tough re-election bids in states Trump won in 2016: McCaskill, Manchin, Donnelly, and Heitkamp. They’d be more likely to flip if the SFRC reports Pompeo out with an endorsement, though, in order to protect their left flank when it comes time to rally Democrats in these states to the polls. But there’s another Democrat who wasn’t around for Pompeo’s CIA confirmation vote that might have even more reason to be, er, reasonable:
Some moderate Democrats, as well as independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, declined to weigh in, saying they want to discuss it with the nominee first. “I’m going to reserve my comments, and let me talk to Director Pompeo about all that,” said Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama.
Other moderate Democrats who are undecided on Pompeo’s nomination say his North Korea trip is not a major concern. “It might be a positive thing, actually,” said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. “I look at it as a potential positive.”
Jones owes his seat to the incompetence of Republicans in a special election, not a shift to the left in Alabama. He has to run for re-election, and helping to torpedo one of Trump’s nominees will be portrayed as a sign that Jones is nothing more than a rubber stamp for Democratic party leaders. Tester is an even more interesting case, though, since he seems to be in pretty good position to win re-election whatever he chooses here.
All of this becomes unnecessary if Trump and Pompeo can convince Rand Paul to come back into the fold. Which means that …. all of this will likely be necessary.
Update: I missed this from last weekend (h/t Justin on Twitter):
Director Pompeo has the experience & understanding needed to reassert strong American leadership, confront complex global challenges, restore morale @StateDept & ensure human rights is central to diplomacy. The Senate should move quickly to confirm this highly qualified nominee.
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) April 13, 2018
If McCain can make it to the vote and convinces Flake to vote yes, then Paul may not matter — except in the SFRC, of course, where a positive endorsement will make McConnell’s life a little easier.
Update: At least one red-state Democrat doesn’t want to make waves at home:
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is a YES on the Pompeo nomination pic.twitter.com/luFGfp0JOW
— Thomas Kaplan (@thomaskaplan) April 19, 2018
I’d bet on Jones opting in, too. That’ll be all McConnell needs.