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Pompeo Confirmation Debate Highlights Another Week of Senate Nomination Feuds

Rules and Administration panel also debating changes to nomination floor procedures

CIA Director Mike Pompeo, left, President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of State, arrives for his confirmation hearing April 12 accompanied by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
CIA Director Mike Pompeo, left, President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of State, arrives for his confirmation hearing April 12 accompanied by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

CIA Director Mike Pompeo seems all but assured to be confirmed as secretary of State this week. The question is how much pain will senators go through along the way.

The way forward should become clear after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convenes late Monday afternoon to formally vote on advancing Pompeo’s nomination — probably without a favorable review.

Given the panel’s 11-10 split, the Democratic minority’s members could join with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to give Pompeo a less-than-favorable recommendation, or they could go a step further and deny the former Kansas congressman a quick route to the floor at all.

Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said last week he understood that Democrats on the committee, led by ranking member Robert Menendez of New Jersey, were going to oppose Pompeo.

But Corker has insisted that Pompeo deserves confirmation, and he is well-qualified enough by any standard for even his critics to give him a floor vote.

“I would just say to you and to everybody listening, and certainly my Democratic friends, are you kidding me? You don’t want someone like Mike Pompeo to go in with somebody like [Defense Secretary James Mattis] and ensure that the right kind of advice is given to our president?” the Tennessee Republican said Thursday on MSNBC. “We need to get him confirmed.”

Keeping secrets

Among the concerns raised by Menendez was that he had no knowledge of Pompeo’s secret trip to North Korea before it was publicly reported and then confirmed by President Donald Trump.

“Even in my private conversations with him, he didn’t tell me about his visit to North Korea,” Menendez said Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now I don’t expect diplomacy to be negotiated out in the open but I do expect for someone who is the nominee to be secretary of State, when he speaks with committee leadership and is asked specific questions about North Korea, to share some insights about such a visit.”

It appeared unlikely as of Friday that Pomepo’s opponents would go so far as to force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to make procedural moves to discharge Pompeo’s nomination from the committee before a floor vote.

In addition to further escalating tensions over the pace of nominations, it would put moderate Democrats who might ultimately support Pompeo in a bit of a box.

That includes Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. The North Dakota Democrat last week became the first member of her caucus to express support for Pompeo’s new role.

“At a time of peril around the world, we need to exhaust all diplomatic options before sending the brave men and women of the armed forces into dangerous situations that could escalate out of control,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “If he’s confirmed, I’ll hold Mr. Pompeo accountable to make sure he advances our country’s leadership in the world and supports our embassies — including by filling critical jobs that have been vacant, like for the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea.”

Watch: Lawmakers Press Pompeo On Syria Response Without Congressional Approval

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Political maneuvers

Heitkamp’s concern about the lack of a Senate-confirmed envoy in Seoul gets to the heart of a point often made by Senate Democrats when Trump, McConnell and others in the GOP complain about the pace of confirmations.

Trump simply has not nominated people for a number of important roles throughout the government.

But the other side of the coin — the effort by Democrats to force McConnell to file motions to break potential filibusters of Trump nominees, particularly for lifetime appointments to the federal bench — is at least equally significant.

McConnell has lined up a Monday evening vote to invoke cloture on Kyle Duncan to be a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Duncan has faced criticism from left-of-center advocacy groups, as well as California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee.

Feinstein has pointed in particular to Duncan’s past advocacy for a Texas law restricting access to abortion services. His nomination was reported out of Judiciary on an 11-10 party-line vote.

The broader argument, which has been percolating ever since Trump took office, could also take another step forward this week.

Watch: How to Change Senate Rules, Slowly, With the ‘Book of Spells’

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Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri has scheduled a Wednesday afternoon markup of a proposed new standing order that would restore and make permanent reductions in post-cloture debate time that were in effect during part of the last Democratic majority.

The measure would slash debate time to up to eight hours for many executive branch nominees, excluding the most senior positions.

“I’ve reached back to that 2013 agreement that Harry Reid did, that every single Democrat but one agreed to, and said let’s go back to that agreement,” said Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Lankford, the author of the resolution.

Speaking with reporters for Roll Call and The Washington Post in an interview that aired Sunday on C-SPAN, Lankford conceded that so far he has not gotten any Democrats to sign on to the 2018 version of the proposal.

That might not be too shocking, since the January 2013 deal took effect well before then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid used the so-called nuclear option to eliminate the need to get 60 votes to break filibusters of most nominees.

Watch: What’s the Nuclear Option? Dismantling This Senate Jargon

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Still, Lankford said his focus was on changing the rules through regular order. He declined to entertain the question of whether he would push McConnell to use a nuclear option approach to enact the principles of his resolution.

“I’m trying to go back to Democrats and say, long term, for the health of the Senate, we can’t keep doing this,” Lankford said. “Not just for now, let’s make this the rule from here on out.”