Mike Pompeo hunts for Democratic votes in his floor confirmation strategy

Committee vote looming

By PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo speaks during his confirmation hearing before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 12, 2018.

(CNN) - President Donald Trump's nominee to be the next secretary of state may not get a favorable committee vote, but that won't stop his nomination, according to GOP lawmakers and aides.

The plan is for Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director, to have his nomination moved to the Senate floor regardless of the looming committee vote. All eyes will be on a handful of moderate Democrats facing tough re-election campaigns.

"I think it's important that he gets a vote on the floor of the Senate and I believe that he will be confirmed," Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and member of leadership, told reporters.

The strategic roster of closed-door meetings Pompeo has had with senators so far suggests that the nominee himself has been keenly aware of the shift in focus from the committee vote total to where the floor vote stands.

Doing Pompeo's Senate confirmation math

As it stands, several committee Democrats still haven't announced where they will end up -- Sen. Ben Cardin, a senior Democrat on the panel, said Monday night he was "still evaluating." But the expectation among Republicans is that given the committee's 11-10 Republican makeup, with GOP Sen. Rand Paul already in the "no" column, that he will not receive the requisite number of votes for a favorable recommendation to the Senate floor.

"The committee can report him out unfavorably and you can still take him up on the floor, it's just a question of whether or not we have the committee sign off and it sounds like it's possible we wouldn't," said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranked Republican in the chamber.

That would provide Pompeo with a somewhat ignominious distinction. According to the Senate historian's office, there are no instances of a secretary of state nominee receiving an unfavorable committee vote since 1925. Prior to the mid to late 1920s, nearly all executive Senate committee business was done in closed session, so there was no public record for these actions, the office added. According to a Congressional Research Service report, from 1987-2016, no nominee was confirmed after being reported unfavorably by a committee.

Despite that, Republicans and Trump administration officials, according to aides, have targeted a list of Democrats seen as in play due to both their personal politics -- and the politics of their re-election races. With a political map that includes 10 Democrats running for re-election in states Trump won in 2016, some by sizable margins, and GOP lawmakers and aides say, at least at this point, they are confident in Pompeo's pathway to confirmation.

With Paul a "no" vote and Sen. John McCain back in Arizona battling cancer, Republicans would need a single Democrat to vote in favor of Pompeo should each of the 49 Republicans vote for the nomination. Should they lose more Republicans, more Democrats would be needed to get the nomination across the finish line.

"There's some combination of up to a handful of them that will have a hard time explaining why they weren't for somebody like Mike Pompeo for that job," said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican.

Those Democratic targets include lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri also haven't publicly declared their intentions to this point.

Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, told CNN on Tuesday that he was undecided. Trump won one of Maine's four electoral college votes. King is up for re-election this year, and Senate Republicans are eying his vote as potentially gettable, aides say.

"I voted for him for head of the CIA," King told CNN's Chris Cuomo on "New Day." "That's a very different job. That is essentially a job of reporting intelligence, passing information to the President. And it's not a policy job. And I think he's done a good job in that position. ... He hasn't put his policy preferences ahead of the intelligence. Secretary of state is a whole different deal."

Attempting to highlight the political risk in voting against Pompeo's nomination in tough midterm races given the international turmoil and high stakes, one GOP aide put it plainly: "A 'no' vote is a negative campaign ad a day for every one of them for the next six months."

Searching for at least one Democratic vote

At the moment, no Democrat has committed to a "yes" vote. But Manchin repeated several times to reporters on Monday that he was "very open minded." The senator will meet with Pompeo on Tuesday, according to a source. Sen. Doug Jones, the recently sworn-in Alabama Democrat, said he's "open" to Pompeo, but wants to meet with him first. McCaskill said she also wants to meet with Pompeo before finalizing her decision.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who voted for Pompeo as CIA director, told CNN on Tuesday she will vote against him for the State Department job if it comes to the floor. Her decision to oppose his nomination was not a surprise given that she faces a challenger from the left for her re-election, but her position illustrates the difficulty ahead of Pompeo.

For its part, Senate Democratic leadership hasn't said how they will approach the vote at the caucus up to this point -- whether to push their members to vote against or members vote however they see fit, according to a senior Democratic aide.

The clock is ticking, however. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said Monday he planned to hold the committee vote on Pompeo's nomination next week, with a floor vote possible the week after that. Corker declined to weigh in on his plans should Pompeo fall short in his committee.

"Let's see what happens in the committee and then we'll figure out where to go from there," Corker said, adding that he hoped some of the panel's Democrats would eventually vote yes. But he also acknowledged that for many Democrats, the nomination was being viewed more broadly than just about Pompeo.

"I do understand how on the Democratic side many view this as a proxy" for the Trump administration's foreign policy in general, Corker told reporters.

Plenty of Democrats have raised specific concerns about Pompeo's qualifications -- from his position on the Iran nuclear deal and his independence from Trump to past statements indicating a hawkishness they say they are uncomfortable with in the position as the nation's top diplomat.

"Now more than ever, we need a Secretary of State who will stand strong for vigorous US diplomacy," Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who supported Pompeo's nomination to be CIA director, said in a statement. "I believe that Mike Pompeo would exacerbate President Trump's weaknesses rather than uphold our diplomatic legacy."

Yet Republicans say it's as much a reflection of the current atmosphere as it is one on the nominee -- a former congressman who graduated first in his class from the US military academy with a degree from Harvard Law School.

"Nothing is as easy as it should be right now," Blunt said. "I don't think that's a reflection on him as much as it's a reflection on the moment."

This story has been updated.

Copyright 2018 by CNN NewSource. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.