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Sunday 26 January 2020

Mike Pompeo nomination for secretary of state narrowly clears panel

The CIA director’s nomination now goes to the full Senate.

Mike Pompeo is Donald Trump's choice for secretary of state (Alex Brandon/AP)
Mike Pompeo is Donald Trump's choice for secretary of state (Alex Brandon/AP)

By Lisa Mascaro, Associated Press

Mike Pompeo, US president Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, has avoided a rare rebuke as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly recommended him.

But the vote served as a warning shot to the White House as nominees to lead the CIA and Veterans Affairs (VA) are hitting stiff resistance.

Mr Pompeo, who is now CIA director, received the panel’s approval only after Mr Trump’s last-minute overtures to Senator Rand Paul.

Mr Pompeo’s nomination now goes to the full Senate, where votes are tallying in his favour and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he looks forward to voting to confirm him later this week.

Mr Trump has been quick to fire his top cabinet secretaries, but Senate Democrats are not so fast to confirm replacements. A grilling is expected on Wednesday of Ronny Jackson, the White House physician nominated to head the VA, and Mr Pompeo’s potential replacement at the CIA, Gina Haspel, is also facing scrutiny.

“Hard to believe,” Mr Trump tweeted Monday about the “obstruction”. “The Dems will not approve hundreds of good people… They are maxing out the time on approval process for all, never happened before. Need more Republicans!”

Republicans hold just a slim Senate majority, 50-49, with the prolonged absence of Senator John McCain.

Mr Pompeo’s bid to become the nation’s top diplomat was in the hands of a few senators, but received a boost Monday when two Democrats, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana, announced their support.

Pressure is mounting on senators from all sides. White House allies are unloading ad campaigns against Democrats from Trump-won states, but progressive groups are pounding senators’ offices in opposition. As soon as Senator Heidi Heitkamp announced her support for Mr Pompeo, one group called on her to switch.

Ahead of the Foreign Relations Committee’s vote, chairman Bob Corker said of the full Senate, “It does appear Mike Pompeo has the votes to be secretary of state.”

Supporters point to Mr Pompeo’s resume as a West Point and Harvard Law School graduate who has the president’s confidence, particularly on North Korea. Opponents are focusing on his hawkish foreign policy views and negative comments about gay marriage and Muslims.

Mr Paul’s earlier objections to Mr Pompeo, along with overwhelming opposition from Democrats, had set the secretary of state nominee on track to be the first since 1925, when the committee started keeping records, not to receive a favourable recommendation.

But Mr Trump and Mr Paul talked repeatedly, including a chat just moments before the vote.

“I have changed my mind,” Mr Paul said, explaining he received reassurances that Mr Pompeo agrees with the president that the Iraq war was a “mistake” and that it is time for US troops to leave Afghanistan.

Mr Paul’s office said he “got a win” – the promise that Mr Pompeo sides with Mr Trump on those issues — out of the situation, but declined to provide details.

“I want Trump to be Trump,” Mr Paul said.

Asked about Mr Paul’s change of heart, Mr Trump said, “He’s a good man.”

Senators are anxious to have Mr Pompeo in place before international meetings scheduled for later this week and ahead of North Korea talks.

Republicans blamed partisan politics for opposition, saying Mr Pompeo is just as qualified as past secretaries of state nominees Hillary Clinton or John Kerry, both of whom received overwhelming support.

“A majority of Democrats continue their pointless obstruction to score cheap political points with their base as a wilful attempt to undermine American diplomacy,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

But Democrats resisted easy confirmation of the nation’s top diplomat, and support peeled.

Senator Maggie Hassan, who had been among more than a dozen Democrats who supported Mr Pompeo for CIA director, announced her no vote on Monday.

“I am concerned that Mr Pompeo has not demonstrated an understanding that the Secretary of State has an obligation to the American people to stand up for our core values,” she said.

Senator Chris Coons, who was among the last Democrats on the foreign relations panel to announce his no vote, said he is concerned that Mr Pompeo “will embolden, rather than moderate or restrain” Mr Trump’s “most belligerent and dangerous instincts”.

In a late setback on Monday, the panel was short one Republican vote needed for a favourable recommendation because Senator Johnny Isakson was delivering a eulogy in his home state of Georgia.

Rather than postpone voting until his return very late on Monday, Mr Coons agreed to allowed his vote to be recorded as “present” so the committee could finish its work.

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