Mike Pompeo spent his Easter working in a tense diplomatic environment to prevent a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula from spiraling out of control. In any sane world, his apparent success — or lack of failure, at any rate — would serve as a conclusive audition for the role of the nation’s top diplomat. Instead, it may take another nuclear option for Mitch McConnell to win confirmation as Secretary of State this week.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes today on Pompeo’s nomination, which is scheduled for 5 pm ET barring other changes. He’s not expected to win a recommendation, and that might complicate McConnell’s options for a full floor vote:
The full Senate is still expected to consider Pompeo’s nomination later this week. But the rare rebuke expected from the panel Monday, even after Pompeo’s recent visit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, would be the first time in years that a nominee for the high-level Cabinet position did not receive a favorable committee vote.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the committee, blamed partisan politics for opposition to Pompeo, now the CIA director, saying Pompeo is just as qualified as past secretaries of state nominees Hillary Clinton or John Kerry, both of whom received overwhelming support.
“We are in an era where somebody like this, who is qualified, unfortunately, is likely to be voted out without recommendation or with a negative recommendation,” Corker said Sunday on “State of the Union” on CNN. “It’s just sad that our nation has devolved politically to this point.”
Pompeo’s confirmation before the full Senate now hangs in balance, with the votes of just a handful of senators determining whether he becomes the nation’s top diplomat after Trump fired Rex Tillerson last month.
It’s trickier than just getting to 50. While Harry Reid blew up the filibuster on presidential appointments in 2013, there still remains a mechanism to force a cloture vote on confirmations when getting a negative committee recommendation. The Hill’s Alexander Bolton reports that Democrats are mulling over whether to risk being labeled as obstructionists by resorting to this measure:
Even Democrats who are not facing tough reelection races are leery about setting a new standard by trying to block Pompeo in committee.
The Foreign Relations panel has not reported a secretary of State nominee unfavorably since votes started being recorded in the early 1900s, according to one Democratic aide. …
If Democrats on Foreign Relations vote in unison against reporting Pompeo out of the committee and have the support of conservative Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has stated his opposition to Pompeo, they could set up a 60-vote hurdle for moving Pompeo to the Senate floor.
That could trigger another “nuclear option” from McConnell:
Republicans, however, say that McConnell could change Senate procedure to confirm Pompeo by using another controversial tactic known as the nuclear option, which requires a simple majority vote to set a new precedent.
So the man who has already been working to remove a nuclear option in Korea might need a nuclear option in Washington to keep working. It’s more than a little ironic, especially given the deference usually shown to presidents when making foreign-service appointments. As Bob Corker mentioned, both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry received 94 votes for confirmation despite their status as once and future presidential candidates. Pompeo is at least as qualified as Kerry (who served as SFRC chair and member for several years) and is much more qualified than Clinton, who had been a senator for a little over one term in office.
The White House would prefer to avoid such a fight, of course. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Marc Short urged red-state Democrats to go public with their support to pre-empt the issue, and pressed Rand Paul once again to line up behind Donald Trump to avoid triggering more Senate rules changes:
“We certainly hope that some members will change their minds,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said during a morning interview on Fox News, in which she accused Democrats of playing “political games” with Trump’s nomination of Pompeo, the current CIA director.
“We expect Democrats to get on board and focus on what’s best for this country, not what’s best for their midterm elections,” Sanders said, adding: “We know how good of a candidate and how qualified [Pompeo] is.” …
“Rand Paul should have faith in the president’s decision,” Sanders said. “He should certainly be supportive of what the president is trying to do.”
Marc Short, the White House legislative director, said recent weeks have been “incredibly disheartening” as he has had private conversations with Democrats who say Pompeo is qualified but will not vote for him because of political considerations. “They’re not showing courage in doing what they know is right,” Short said of Democrats during an appearance on CNN.
The showdown will take place at 5 ET today, unless Corker decides to postpone it or to simply report it out with no recommendation at all. That might be the best Corker can do.
Update: Marc Short upped the ante a bit on Paul this morning:
.@Marcshort45 also hopeful @RandPaul will come around to support Pompeo. "I think it would be quite surprising to the voters of Kentucky to see Rand Paul vote for John Kerry as Secretary of State and yet against Mike Pompeo," said Short.
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) April 23, 2018
That does need some explanation.
Update: Trump himself escalated the pressure, although he’s refraining from mentioning Paul … for now:
Hard to believe Obstructionists May vote against Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State. The Dems will not approve hundreds of good people, including the Ambassador to Germany. They are maxing out the time on approval process for all, never happened before. Need more Republicans!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 23, 2018
That’s also a thinly veiled push on McConnell to change Senate rules to vastly reduce the number of hours allocated for floor debate on nominations. Plus, Richard Grennell has been waiting for months to get his up-or-down vote for the Germany posting. Enough is enough.