Senate panel approves Rex Tillerson for secretary of State

WASHINGTON — Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson won approval Monday from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to become President Trump's secretary of State, paving the way for confirmation by the full Senate.

The committee voted 11-10, along party lines, for Tillerson, whose nomination for the post has been controversial because of his close dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tillerson prevailed after Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., announced he would reluctantly support former oil company executive despite reservations about his ties to Russia.

Rubio told the committee his concern was that Tillerson will "pursue a foreign policy of deal-making at the expense of human rights and democracy.”

During a sometimes tense confirmation hearing Jan. 11, Rubio called Tillerson's answers "troubling" and "discouraging" when he refused to agree that Russia and Syria's aggressive actions were war crimes or that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's extradjudicial killings were human rights violations.

Republicans hold a one-seat advantage on the panel, so a "no" vote would have blemished — though not torpedoed — Trump's choice to run the State Department.

Rubio's decision to endorse Tillerson was probably made easier by the announcement Sunday of two other Tillerson skeptics — Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — to favor Tillerson. In a joint statement, both said Tillerson "can be an effective advocate for U.S. interests."

Rubio wrote a lengthy Facebook post explaining that he would vote for Tillerson: "Given the uncertainty that exists both at home and abroad about the direction of our foreign policy, it would be against our national interests to have this confirmation unnecessarily delayed or embroiled in controversy."

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, said he opposed Tillerson’s nomination because “the fundamental role of a secretary of State is to promote American values.” He said Tillerson would not answer questions about whether he supported sanctions or whether development assistance should be contingent on human rights.

“So many times he qualified (his responses) that he sounded like a business person and not like a secretary of State,” Cardin said.

Cardin said Tillerson lacked the passion for human rights shown by other Trump nominees, such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, picked to be ambassador to the United Nations, and James Mattis, who was confirmed Friday as secretary of Defense.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said he respects Tillerson’s experience, but his world views don't support a tradition of promoting U.S. values such as protecting human rights and enforcing rule of law.

“It is not the type of moral clarity I would like a secretary of State to espouse,” Menendez said.

Menendez also said he did not think Tillerson was forthcoming in his answers about ExxonMobil's lobbying against sanctions.

Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., noted that Tillerson was an engineer by training and was cautious in some of his answers because he "probably doesn’t know the person he’s about to work for very well."

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, voted in favor of Tillerson, saying he was impressed by his commitment to support NATO allies and to protect them if they come under attack. Those comments from Tillerson were at odds with Trump, who as a candidate said he would consider allies’ contributions to their own defense before ordering U.S. troops to defend them.

Democrats earlier criticized Rubio for what they see as caving to Trump.

“By ignoring his serious reservations about Tillerson’s connections to Vladimir Putin, Marco Rubio is not only rolling over for Donald Trump, he’s earning the nickname Trump gave him: Little Marco," said Zac Petkanas, a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee.

Rubio had been pressed by a number of influential Republicans in recent weeks to back Tillerson, including former vice president Dick Cheney. If he voted against Tillerson, Rubio would be tagged as the chief antagonist against his own party’s president.

It would also have meant running afoul of Senate Republican leaders who just awarded him a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee.

Only a handful of Cabinet nominees have been rejected, the most recent being former Texas senator John Tower in 1989, whom President George H.W. Bush had named to run the Pentagon.

Secretary of State-nominee Rex Tillerson testifies on Jan. 11, 2017, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)

Senate committee approves Rex Tillerson for secretary of State, must still pass full Senate

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly approved President Donald Trump's choice for secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil chairman Rex Tillerson, on Monday.

The vote was 11-10, with every committee Republican backing Tillerson and every Democrat opposing his nomination.

Tillerson is expected to be confirmed for the position when the matter comes before the 100-member Senate, where Republicans hold a 52-seat majority.

Rex Tillerson is approved by Senate panel for secretary of State

Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil chief executive selected by President Trump to be secretary of State, won approval Monday from a Senate committee, all but guaranteeing his ascension to the job.

The vote at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was 11 in favor and 10 against, cast strictly along party lines. The nomination now moves to the full Senate.

Several senators, Republican and Democratic, had expressed opposition to Tillerson's nomination ahead of Monday's vote. State Department officials said senators submitted more than 1,000 additional questions for Tillerson to answer after his hearing, suggesting many matters were left unsettled.

But in the last 24 hours, he received key support that turned the tide.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Monday said he would vote for Tillerson's confirmation . His was some of the toughest questioning during Tillerson's Jan. 11 hearing before the committee. Rubio pushed the 64-year-old Texas native on his ties to Russia and friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rubio and others also complained that Tillerson seemed reluctant to criticize countries whose governments are widely documented to be abusers of human rights, such as the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.

But Rubio said Monday that despite "troubling" answers from Tillerson, he decided to allow "significant deference" to Trump in naming his national security team.

On Sunday, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who initially resisted the Tillerson selection, threw their support behind Tillerson, a career Exxon executive. Although they are not members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, they are influential within the party and can help steer the vote on the Senate floor.

Among the opponents to Tillerson was Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking Democrat on the committee. Cardin said Monday he could not vote for Tillerson because he seemed to prioritize "narrow business interests" over broader U.S. goals and values.

Tillerson was unwilling to characterize atrocities as war crimes and was soft on sanctions, Cardin noted, which were imposed on Russia over its 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

“Strangely, he was quick to caution about easing sanctions on Cuba because it would benefit a repressive regime, but seemed indifferent to doing business with Russia knowing that that business helped finance their ongoing violations of international norms," Cardin said.

Tillerson takes the job of America's top diplomat with no diplomatic or political experience. He has differed with Trump on several key policies.

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