CIA Director Mike Pompeo narrowly avoided historical ignominy on Monday when the Foreign Relations Committee approved his nomination to be secretary of State.
It took more steps to advance President Donald Trump’s nominee than anyone might have anticipated going into the meeting, including what in the modern Senate was a magnanimous gesture from Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, was going to be absent until late Monday night because he stayed in Atlanta to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of a close friend. Isakson’s absence meant that the members of the Foreign Relations panel who were present initially tied along party lines, 10-10.
Proxy votes in committee cannot be determinative under Senate rules, meaning an effort by Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee to allow Isakson to cast a proxy vote in favor of Pompeo would have been exposed to a battle over precedents on the Senate floor.
Corker was prepared to continue the business meeting until after 11 p.m. Monday, when Isakson would be back, and ranking member Robert Menendez of New Jersey suggested the chairman do just that, given the extent of Democratic opposition to Pompeo for a variety of policy reasons.
But Senate traditions offered an obvious alternative.
“It seems to me just from the standpoint of history and the permanent status of this coming out of committee, an 11-10 vote wants to vote this person out on a positive vote,” Corker said. “If I had an indication that one member would vote ‘present’ then we could go ahead and do this.”
It initially seemed the old Senate tradition of “pairing” votes for and against, a practice that allows the will of all senators to be reflected whether or not they are physically present, would not happen Monday. But Coons then spoke up from his spot on the dais.
There are few senators on opposite sides of the aisle who must work more closely than Isakson and Coons, and perhaps none with more sensitivity.
As the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Ethics Committee, they must work in secret to investigate alleged misdeeds of fellow senators (including, yes, Menendez, under review even after the government dropped its corruption case against him).
“Having heard early this afternoon a request from my dear friend, Sen. Isakson, this was not the fact-pattern we had expected. Given the public statements by a number of the members of this committee, we had expected to be in a different fact-pattern,” Coons said. “I am recorded as voting against Mike Pompeo for secretary of State, but I will vote present.”
That meant the effective tally was 11-9, with Coons voting “present” and Isakson a “yes” by proxy.
The bizarre circumstance began to come clear with a series of tweets.
At the scheduled start of Monday’s business meeting, Sen. Rand Paul appeared poised to join the panel’s Democrats in voting against the Pompeo nomination to be the top U.S. diplomat at a very sensitive diplomatic time.
But then the tweets came flying.
Watch: Rand Paul Explains His Shift on Pompeo
“After calling continuously for weeks for Director Pompeo to support President Trump’s belief that the Iraq war was a mistake, and that it is time to leave Afghanistan, today I received confirmation the Director Pompeo agrees with @realDonaldTrump,” the Kentucky Republican said.
And with that, the expectation Pompeo would become a curious historical footnote along the way to confirmation proved wrong.
Paul said that after conversations with both Trump and Pompeo, he could support advancing the nomination.
“President Trump believes that Iraq was a mistake, that regime change has destabilized the region, and that we must end our involvement with Afghanistan,” Paul said. “Having received assurances from President Trump and Director Pompeo that he agrees with the President on these important issues, I have decided to support his nomination to be our next Secretary of State.”
Given the 11-10 party-line split on the committee, and vociferous opposition from panel Democrats, Paul’s vote proved critical to getting Pompeo reported favorably from the committee.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear ahead of the committee vote that the Senate would be turning to the nomination to lead the State Department before departing at week’s end for a scheduled recess, regardless of the outcome at the Foreign Relations panel.
“In Mike Pompeo, the United States will have a chief diplomat who enjoys the total confidence of the president, and who’s uniquely qualified to reinvigorate our Foreign Service and represent our interests abroad,” McConnell said on the floor Monday.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana on Monday became the second and third members of their caucus, respectively, to announce support for Trump’s choice of Pompeo, following North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp.
Manchin said he would be backing Pompeo in part because they worked together during Manchin’s tenure on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
When McConnell announced his intent to schedule a floor vote, he had set the stage for Pompeo to join a short list of individuals confirmed to Cabinet posts without support of the committee of jurisdiction, and the first since 1945.
That year, the Commerce Committee voted, 14-5, to report unfavorably the nomination of former Vice President Henry Wallace to be Commerce secretary for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth term.
The issue, as explained in the 1945 edition of the CQ Almanac, was over Wallace’s qualifications to run the Commerce Department, including the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, as well as the function of that lending agency in the postwar period. Wallace was ultimately confirmed after congressional action on legislation to return the Federal Loan Agency to its prior position as an independent entity.
Pompeo would not become the next Wallace, but the circumstances were nonetheless a reminder that sometimes in the Senate, things do not follow the script.
Ed Pesce contributed to this report.