WASHINGTON - The Senate Foreign Relations committee is due to vote Monday on President Donald Trump's pick for secretary of State, oil executive Rex Tillerson, who is expected to be confirmed now that Republican Senator Marco Rubio has indicated he will support the nomination.
On Sunday, two influential Republicans, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham threw their support behind Tillerson after earlier expressing serious concern over his ties with Russia.
“Though we still have concerns about his past dealings with the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin, we believe that Mr. Tillerson can be an effective advocate for U.S. interests,” McCain and Graham said in a joint statement Sunday.
“This was not an easy call,” McCain said on ABC’s This Week program. “But I also believe that, when there is doubt, the incoming president gets the benefit of the doubt.”
While the support of McCain and Graham were a boost to Tillerson’s chances, neither serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will vote on the nomination late Monday. Florida Republican Senator Rubio is on the committee and had been undecided on Tillerson until Monday.
Republicans have a one-seat majority on the committee, and Tillerson would have been defeated if Rubio joined Democrats who are expected to vote against the oil executive.
During Tillerson's Senate confirmation hearing, Rubio challenged him to label Putin as a war criminal because of Russia's military actions in the Syrian civil war. Tillerson declined to do so, saying "I would not use that term."
Also this week, on the Senate floor, Republicans will press to confirm CIA director nominee Mike Pompeo, whose failure to get a vote Friday irked the new Trump White House.
“Senate Democrats are stalling the nomination of Mike Pompeo and playing politics with national security,” said White House spokesman Sean Spicer. “That is what you guys should be writing and covering.”
Minority Democrats cannot block Cabinet nominees on their own, and Trump expressed confidence that his team will be in place.
“We are going to get them all through, but some are going to take a little bit longer than others,” the president said during a visit to CIA headquarters Saturday.
Republicans noted that previous presidents entered the White House with more nominees confirmed than Trump has been accorded so far.
"I remember very well in January of 2009, the Senate on the first day of the inauguration approved seven Cabinet members. Seven. Not two,” McCain said. “Why in the hell won’t we just go ahead and give the president his national security team when we need it more than at any time in recent history?”
Democrats argue Trump’s nominees have been slow to comply with financial disclosures and ethical reviews.
“This is about whether the Senate is going to be a rubber stamp and whether the Senate is going to, in effect, abdicate its responsibilities to do oversight,” said Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.
“If there was ever a group of Cabinet nominees that cry out for rigorous scrutiny, it is this one,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. “The president-elect’s Cabinet is a swamp Cabinet, full of billionaires and bankers that have conflicts of interest and ethical lapses as far as the eye can see.”
Other contentious confirmation votes loom for nominees to lead the Treasury, Energy and Health and Human Services departments, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.