Senate Democrats have all the leverage they need to block Mike Pompeo's nomination to be secretary of state. But it's looking less certain by the day they are willing to use it.
Pompeo needs at least one Democrat to cross the aisle and support him in order to take the helm at State, given Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) plans to vote ‘no’ and Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) absence from a chamber divided 51-49.
That reality offers real pull to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who was among 15 Democratic caucus members to support Pompeo’s CIA nomination last year. Schumer, however, said Tuesday he still hasn’t decided on Pompeo’s promotion.
“I am studying his record, I want to wait for the written responses before making a commitment,” Schumer told reporters.
A handful of Democrats waging reelection battles in states that President Donald Trump won are also staying undecided, amid escalating political pressure from the left and right and ahead of a confirmation vote that could reach the full Senate next week.
Arguably more controversial Cabinet confirmation votes loom — on Gina Haspel to lead CIA and Ronny Jackson to be VA secretary — and Democratic leaders may not want to go all out against Pompeo, particularly given their desire to restore morale at Foggy Bottom sapped by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
But senators say they are hearing a clamor from their party’s base to fight the nomination — and liberal groups want Democrats to up their opposition to Pompeo, whose history of hawkish views they find alarming.
“What more outrage does Trump need to produce before senators start treating his agenda as a five alarm fire? The public wants to not only hear the words resistance; they also want to see it,” said Faiz Shakir, national political director for the ACLU.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in an interview that she didn’t feel unique pressure since she supported his CIA bid because “everybody’s hearing from a lot of people” about the nomination. In her home state, Shaheen said Tuesday, the sentiment has been “overwhelmingly against” Pompeo. She announced her opposition in a statement a few hours later.
The red-state Democrats whose votes could make all the difference are largely publicly undecided. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said Tuesday that she is “still evaluating” him; Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he has an “open mind”; and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is waiting until she meets with him privately.
Preserving those senators’ political futures is top of mind for Schumer, and Republicans are threatening to make Democrats from Trump-backed states feel the heat if they block Pompeo ahead of critical negotiations with North Korea. The caucus has not started whipping against the nomination yet, according to Democratic whip Dick Durbin of Illinois.
One red-state Democrat who opposed Pompeo’s CIA nomination even left the door open to voting for him to be secretary of state.
“It would be honest to say that I probably feel the same way about State, but I want to meet with him, see if that changes my opinion,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said in an interview.
One-on-one meetings with senators often appear perfunctory but can give a nominee a critical boost in a challenging confirmation push. Pompeo, a former House Republican-turned-CIA director, tangled with Democrats during his confirmation hearing but has proven a better performer behind closed doors than some other Trump picks, according to one Senate Democratic aide.
Indeed, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), among the most liberal senators, is also undecided on Pompeo. Another swing vote still up in the air is Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats and faces his own reelection fight this fall.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), however, announced her opposition on Tuesday, as did Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Both new Pompeo opponents were among the group of 15 caucus members who voted for him at CIA.
“I’m doing my research, and we’re looking through a number of comments that he’s made, and they’re anything but statesmanlike,” said Feinstein, who faces a reelection challenge from the left this fall.
If Democrats on the Foreign Relations panel join Paul in united opposition to Pompeo in next week’s anticipated committee vote, the CIA director would receive an unfavorable vote on the way to the Senate floor. Only two nominees have faced that fate since 1987, the independent Congressional Research Service has reported, and both failed to win confirmation by the full chamber.
But past precedent isn’t slowing down Senate Republicans. "One of the things you don’t do is just throw your hands up,” the foreign relations panel’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), told reporters when asked about the potential obstacle facing Pompeo’s nomination.
Corker declined to commit to a timeframe for a floor vote on Pompeo but added that “I know there’s a desire on behalf of the administration to try to have him confirmed before recess,” which begins at the end of next week.
While liberal activists mobilize to push Democrats to vote ‘no,’ the Republican National Committee is continuing to pressure red-state moderates, including by launching its own pro-Pompeo messaging campaign last week.
"These red state Democrats have been telling their constituents that they’re willing to work with this administration, but if they vote no, it’ll be blatantly obvious that they’ve just been lying," RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens said.
If Pompeo ultimately meets a wall of Democratic opposition as the left is seeking, his leading role in the House GOP's probe of the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi may prove a critical factor.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) raised the issue in an interview, and said that although he didn't support Pompeo for CIA, he would hold off on taking a position on his State Department nomination until they met in person.
"I want to meet with him first, but I’m concerned about what he did at the Benghazi hearings,” Brown said. “I’m concerned about how he has sort of roiled the waters of the State Department in attacking them through those hearings, and what that's meant for actually running the State Department."
Citing Pompeo's past explosive remarks about the LGBT community and Muslims, Brown added: "I don’t know. Do we want that face for our nation as he represents our nation?”