Mike Pompeo confirmed as CIA director, Rex Tillerson moves closer to getting vote for secretary of state

Mr Mike Pompeo attending his confirmation hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee, on Jan 12, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Mr Mike Pompeo attending his confirmation hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee, on Jan 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) -  The US Senate on Monday (Jan 23) confirmed Mr Mike Pompeo as CIA director and advanced the nomination of Mr Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state, taking key steps toward filling President Donald Trump’s cabinet.

Mr Pompeo, a Republican congressman on the House Intelligence Committee, becomes only the third member of Mr Trump’s cabinet to take his post, as the president’s Republican Party has pushed hard to speed up confirmation of his nominees.

Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly were sworn last Friday, Inauguration Day.

The Republican-led Senate confirmed Mr Pompeo, a 53-year-old US Army veteran, by a vote of 66 to 32, with significant support from Democrats.

“He will be an excellent CIA director,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, who tweeted his congratulations to his House colleague.

While Mr Pompeo faced some Democratic push back, many in the opposition party acknowledged his keen understanding of intelligence issues, especially the cyber threat facing the nation.

Mr Pompeo “has committed to following the law regarding torture (and) promised to provide objective analysis of Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement,” said veteran Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Republicans had hoped to confirm Mr Pompeo on Friday but Democrats balked, arguing that a CIA director has never been put in place on Inauguration Day.

The delay drew criticism from  Mr Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer, who charged that Democrats, led by Senator Chuck Schumer, were “playing politics with national security.” Mr Schumer voted in favour of Mr Pompeo on Monday.

Meanwhile, a Senate panel greenlighted Mr Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief whose nomination has been a source of controversy in large part because of his lack of government or diplomatic experience. The move cleared the way for a confirmation vote by the full chamber.

The vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was 11 to 10, along strict party lines, setting up a period of debate and subsequent vote on an as-yet-undetermined day in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Mr Tillerson received a major boost when Senator Marco Rubio, one of three Republicans who had expressed doubts about him, announced he will support Mr Tillerson for the post despite serious reservations.

Mr Rubio said he still had concerns about Mr Tillerson’s positions on human rights.

But he stressed that given the “uncertainty” about the direction of US foreign policy, “it would be against our national interests to have this confirmation unnecessarily delayed or embroiled in controversy.”

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the other Republicans who had expressed reservations about Mr Tillerson’s past dealings with Russia, gave their blessing on Sunday.

Republicans hold 52 seats in the 100-seat Senate. A simple majority is required for confirmation of cabinet positions.

The committee’s Democrats voted in unison against Mr Tillerson.

“I believe Mr Tillerson’s demonstrated business orientation... could compromise his ability as secretary of state to forcefully promote the values and ideals that have defined our country and our leading role in the world for more than 200 years,” Senator Ben Cardin said in a statement.

Democrats have also blocked nomination votes by arguing that ethics reviews and other vetting of key nominees had been insufficient.

Former president Barack Obama had seven nominees approved on his first day as president in 2009.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News Sunday that despite the delays by Democrats, “we will be able to confirm the entire cabinet.”

Republicans were also hoping to get Mr Trump’s pick for US attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, installed swiftly.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on Sessions on Tuesday, the same day that the Foreign Relations Committee votes on South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s nomination to be US ambassador to the United Nations.