WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is facing so much opposition from Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the panel could be forced to take the unusual step of sending the nomination to the full Senate without a favorable recommendation.
On Wednesday, the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, became the latest to announce his opposition, raising concern that Pompeo failed, in their private conversation, to disclose his recent trip to North Korea to meet with President Kim Jong Un.
News of Pompeo’s visit ricocheted on Capitol Hill after it was made public late Tuesday, but if it was intended to shore up support among wavering senators, it appeared to have the opposite effect among Democrats. Another key member of the panel, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., also announced Wednesday he would vote no.
“I don’t expect diplomacy to be negotiated out in the open but I do expect for someone who is the nominee to be secretary of state, when he speaks with committee leadership and is asked specific questions about North Korea, to share some insights about such a visit,” Menendez said in a talk at a Washington policy think tank.
Menendez echoed concerns lodged by other Democratic senators that Pompeo did little during his public hearing to roll back his comments against Muslims and gay marriage, and failed to outline a clear foreign policy strategy.
“His own personal record is deeply troubling,” Menendez said. “Past statements indicate he has a preference for military action before exhausting diplomacy. Furthermore, he was unable to satisfactorily explain or express contrition for some of the more egregious statements he made as a member of Congress about Muslims, or defend his positions denying women and LGBTQ individuals’ fundamental human rights.”
Pompeo is still expected to have enough votes in the full Senate to replace Rex Tillerson, who was fired by Trump. But as support peels away, his confirmation may come down to a handful of senators. The backlash ahead of the committee’s vote is a rare rebuke for such a high-profile Cabinet pick.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire on Tuesday announced her opposition, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., recently said he would vote no. Both supported Pompeo as CIA director last year.
Shaheen said Pompeo’s previous roles “are fundamentally different from that of secretary of state, who represents American values around the world.”
Rarely has the Senate panel failed to back a nominee, and some said not since President George W. Bush nominated John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has the committee declined to recommend a White House pick.
Republicans have a narrow Senate majority, which gives them a single-vote advantage on the panel. But with stiff opposition from Democrats — and at least one Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, opposed — the committee may have few other options when it convenes as soon as next week.
“We’ll see,” said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Under Senate rules, if the nominee does not have support in the committee, the panel could report to the full Senate unfavorably, which would send a strong rebuke to the White House, or simply report without a recommendation. It also could take no action.
Senators submitted more than 100 questions for the nominee after his initial hearing, and many are waiting for those responses.
Trump initially tapped Pompeo as CIA director, one of his first Cabinet nominees in 2017, and they became close allies.
But some Democrats have faced resistance for their earlier votes in support of Pompeo, and Pompeo is having a tougher path as the nominee for secretary of state over his hawkish foreign policy views and comments about minorities, having suggested that Muslims should denounce extremism and gay people should not be able to marry.
During his confirmation hearing last week, Pompeo told senators it’s unlikely he’d resign if Trump fired special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Of the more than a dozen Democrats who supported Pompeo’s nomination as CIA director in 2017, at least four, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, now oppose his nomination for State.
“The Secretary of State is a very different role than CIA director, and it’s not the kind of position you learn on the job,” Feinstein said in a statement Tuesday. “I sense a certain disdain for diplomacy in Mike Pompeo that I believe disqualifies him from being our next senior diplomat.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who also backed Pompeo earlier, declined to say Tuesday how he would vote.