The Humbling of Mike Pompeo

President Trump’s pick to replace Rex Tillerson could become the first secretary of state to win confirmation over the objections of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Alex Brandon / AP

Updated on April 17 at 5:46 p.m ET

President Trump’s second round of Cabinet picks haven’t drawn the attention his original selections did last year, but they aren’t getting a free pass in the Senate.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s nomination to serve as secretary of state is facing opposition from most Democrats and a key Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, raising the possibility that he could become the first top diplomat in the nation’s history to win confirmation without the public endorsement of the panel that oversees the State Department.

No Democrats have come out in support of Pompeo, who has failed to win any converts since he testified at his confirmation hearing last week. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who voted to approve Pompeo as CIA director a year ago, announced on Sunday that he would oppose his bid to replace Rex Tillerson, and early Tuesday evening, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire followed suit. Fellow Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon have also announced their opposition, while Senator Chris Coons of Delaware is publicly undecided.

The committee hopes to vote on Pompeo’s nomination next week, Micah Johnson, a spokeswoman for Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, said.

The first indication that Pompeo could face a tricky confirmation battle came almost immediately after Trump announced his nomination, when GOP Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky declared his opposition based on Pompeo’s previous defense of torture and support for the NSA’s government spying programs. Paul gave no indication that he relented on Pompeo when he questioned him during last week’s confirmation hearing; he jousted with the CIA director over the constitutionality of Trump’s military strikes on Syria and over the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

“My biggest problem with your nomination is I don’t think it reflects the millions of people who voted for President Trump who actually voted for him because they thought he’d be different,” Paul told him.

Republicans have just a 51-49 majority in the Senate overall, and in the Foreign Relations Committee, Paul could hold the decisive vote. If he sides with all Democrats against confirmation, Pompeo would become the first nominee for secretary of state not to win approval from the panel since it began keeping records of such votes in 1925. Interestingly, the last senior diplomatic nominee to fall short in the Foreign Relations Committee is now Trump’s national-security adviser, John Bolton. The panel rejected President George W. Bush’s nomination of Bolton to serve as U.N. ambassador in 2005, and Republicans failed to defeat a Democratic filibuster to confirm him on the floor. Bush ended up installing Bolton as a recess appointment, and he served in the post for nearly a year and a half.

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the committee, has said that if Pompeo can’t win the panel’s approval, Trump should replace him with a nominee that can gain broader support. But that isn’t likely to happen. Senators in both parties expect Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to schedule a full floor vote on Pompeo’s nomination regardless of how the Foreign Relations Committee votes. If Paul and all 49 Democrats voted no, Pompeo would go down unless Senator John McCain of Arizona made an unlikely return from his months-long absence due to brain cancer. McCain hasn’t voted in the Senate at all in 2018.

But the assumption is that vulnerable Senate Democrats up for reelection in red states this fall—like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, among others—will vote to confirm Pompeo and save him, and Trump, from an embarrassing defeat. Those three voted along with 14 other Democrats to confirm him as CIA director, but they have yet to take a position on his nomination for secretary of state.

Should that happen, Pompeo would become only the second Cabinet officer on record to win confirmation by the full Senate after an unfavorable committee vote, according to the Senate Historical Office. The only other example was former Vice President Henry Wallace, who was nominated by President Franklin Roosevelt to serve as secretary of commerce in 1945 after he had dumped him as his running mate in favor of Harry Truman the year before. The last time the Senate actually rejected a presidential Cabinet nominee was in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush’s nomination of John Tower for secretary of defense went down in defeat. (Many other nominees have withdrawn once it was clear they wouldn’t secure enough votes on the floor.)

Several of Trump’s original nominees last year ran into stiff resistance from Democrats, including Tom Price for health and human services secretary, Jeff Sessions for attorney general, and Betsy DeVos for education secretary. But with a slightly larger, 52-48 majority, Republicans were able to confirm everyone except Andrew Puzder, who withdrew before a vote. Vice President Mike Pence had to break a 50-50 tie to confirm DeVos. Tillerson encountered significant opposition, too, and like Pompeo, his biggest battle came in the Foreign Relations Committee, where he secured a favorable recommendation only after wavering GOP Senator Marco Rubio agreed to support him.

Tillerson’s liabilities were his lack of diplomatic experience and his ties to Vladimir Putin from his time as CEO of Exxon-Mobil, but what did him in with Trump were a lack of personal chemistry and his disagreement with the president on key issues. The issue Democrats have with Pompeo, by contrast, is that he is too hawkish on the use of military force and too ideologically conservative to represent the nation on the world stage. Democratic senators were also frustrated with his lack of specificity during his testimony last week. “He seems to be an empty vessel at this point, and that’s problematic for a lot of people,” a senior Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to describe the party’s thinking, said. “We’re not saying all Dems are going to be a ‘no,’ but there’s momentum building [against Pompeo].”

Democrats believe they stand a better chance of defeating Trump’s nominee to replace Pompeo as CIA director, Gina Haspel, who has already drawn criticism from Paul and McCain for her role overseeing a post-9/11 CIA “black site” where suspected terrorists were tortured and then took part in a decision to destroy tapes of the interrogations. And Trump’s pick of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, to take over the Department of Veterans Affairs is no shoo-in for confirmation, either. Senators in both parties have questioned his lack of management experience, and Democrats want assurances that he’ll continue former VA Secretary David Shulkin’s fight against privatization of veterans’ health care.

Chances are that Pompeo, at least, will ultimately prevail in the Senate within the next few weeks, humbled but not necessarily hobbled by the Foreign Relations Committee. But if he takes over the State Department without the panel’s recommendation, he’ll be the first secretary of state to do so after such a tentative endorsement from Capitol Hill.