US Senate advances Rex Tillerson's nomination as secretary of state

Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, is scheduled to be voted in Senate panels on Jan 31, 2017.
Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, is scheduled to be voted in Senate panels on Jan 31, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Senate on Monday (Jan 30) advanced the nomination of Mr Rex Tillerson to be President Donald Trump's secretary of state, setting up a final confirmation vote for later this week.

Several other Trump cabinet picks are scheduled to receive votes in Senate panels on Tuesday. If they pass favourably out of committee, as expected along party lines, they head to confirmation votes by the full Senate.

The nomination of Mr Tillerson, the former chief executive of ExxonMobil who has never served in government, advanced by a vote of 56 to 43, with four Democrats joining all 52 Republicans in support.

"He has the type of international work experience that will serve him well as the next secretary of state," Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

Mr Trump has pressed hard to get his cabinet in place as he begins the complex task of governing.

The White House has accused Senate Democrats of obstruction, and the new president lashed out at the opposition party late Monday, writing on Twitter that Democrats were "delaying my cabinet picks for purely political reasons".

"They have nothing going but to obstruct," he tweeted.

The Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, fuelled by Mr Trump's recent actions including his controversial executive order on immigration, has announced his opposition to most of Mr Trump's cabinet picks, including Mr Tillerson and attorney general nominee Senator Jeff Sessions.

"In his first week in office the president has stomped over our proud American tradition of welcoming immigrants and refugees, trafficked in alternative facts, and is attempting to fill his cabinet with billionaires and bankers," Mr Schumer said.

Republicans hold 52 seats in the 100-seat Senate. A simple majority is required for confirmation of cabinet positions, so any Democratic effort to derail a nominee would need Republican help.

With just three of Mr Trump's cabinet members in place so far - Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and CIA chief Mike Pompeo, plus cabinet-rank US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley - Republicans have sought to speed confirmation of Mr Trump's other nominees.

The Senate will hold a flurry of votes on Tuesday, including a confirmation vote for Ms Elaine Chao as secretary of transportation.

Mr Sessions will get his vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, after Democrats on the panel delayed the vote by a week.

Also receiving votes on Tuesday before relevant Senate panels are nominees for energy secretary Rick Perry, interior secretary Ryan Zinke, secretary of education Betsy DeVos, Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, and health secretary Tom Price.

But Democrats, livid about what they call Mr Trump's unconstitutional immigration action, were seeking to put up barriers to confirmation in order to debate the executive order, which bars US entry for travellers from seven mainly Muslim countries for 90 days, and suspends all refugee arrivals for 120 days.

"We can take a pause in confirmation votes to try to get this executive order right," Senator Chris Murphy said, according to the Washington Post.

Mr Tillerson's confirmation vote is expected on Wednesday.