GOP senators raise questions over Trump's secretary of State pick
© Greg Nash

President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE's pick to lead the State Department is sparking early division among Senate Republicans.

Trump's transition team announced early Tuesday that he would nominate Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be the country's chief diplomat, calling his career an "embodiment of the American dream."

But Tillerson's ties to Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin are drawing deep skepticism from GOP senators he'll need to support his confirmation.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWatch live: Day 2 at CPAC DeSantis derides 'failed Republican establishment' at CPAC The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Divided House on full display MORE (R-Fla.) said on Tuesday he has "serious concerns" about Trump's choice, but he will give Tillerson a "fair but also thorough hearing."

"The next secretary of State must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America's interests, and will be a forceful advocate for America's foreign policy goals to the president, within the administration, and on the world stage," he said.

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Rubio is one of 10 Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee, which has to greenlight Tillerson's nomination before it can get a full Senate vote.

So far, the Florida Republican is the only GOP senator on the committee to publicly voice concerns about Trump's pick.

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerIt's time for Biden's Cuba GOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics Former GOP senator: Republicans cannot let Trump's 'reckless' post-election claims stand MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the committee, called Tillerson an "impressive individual."

“Mr. Tillerson is a very impressive individual and has an extraordinary working knowledge of the world. I congratulate him on his nomination and look forward to meeting with him and chairing his confirmation hearing,” he said on Tuesday.

Separately, Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGraham: Trump will 'be helpful' to all Senate GOP incumbents Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Cruz hires Trump campaign press aide as communications director MORE (R-Wis.), who is on the committee, echoed Trump's language, calling Tillerson a "world-class player."

The committee also includes Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Health Care: 50 million coronavirus vaccines given | Pfizer news | Biden health nominees Rand Paul criticized for questioning of transgender health nominee Haley isolated after Trump fallout MORE, who blasted former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — who were both under consideration for the State Department post. The Kentucky Republican, who questioned about Tillerson over the weekend, held his fire.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFormer GOP lawmaker: Republican Party 'engulfed in lies and fear' Grassley to vote against Tanden nomination Klain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' MORE (R-Ariz.), another committee member who is a chief Trump skeptic, signaled Tuesday that he's keeping open mind, citing Tillerson's support from GOP foreign policy heavyweights including Condoleezza Rice and Bob Gates.

Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 MORE (R-Colo.), a Russia hawk on the committee, is staying on the fence over Tillerson but said he will get a "fair and through" hearing.

“Congress has the constitutional responsibility of advice and consent and we will rigorously exercise it by exploring a wide range of policy issues during the confirmation process," he added.

Rubio could be the deciding vote on whether or not Tillerson's nomination ultimately dies in the Foreign Relations Committee.

The committee currently includes 10 Republicans and 9 Democrats. Though Democrats haven't pledged opposition to Tillerson, they're sending early signs that they have concerns over his nomination.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinLiberals howl after Democrats cave on witnesses Senate strikes deal, bypassing calling impeachment witnesses Senators, impeachment teams scramble to cut deal on witnesses MORE (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the committee, said Tuesday that he is "deeply troubled" by Tillerson's opposition to U.S. sanctions.

"Tillerson has demonstrated he knows the corporate world and can put his shareholders’ interests first, but can he be a respected Secretary of State that puts the national security interests of the American people first? It remains to be seen," he said in a statement.

If Democrats and Rubio voted against Tillerson in the committee, Senate leadership would have to buck the committee to bring his nomination to the floor — an unusual move for a Cabinet-level position.

Tillerson got his biggest endorsement on Tuesday, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe bizarre back story of the filibuster The Bible's wisdom about addressing our political tribalism Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' MORE (R-Ky.) backing him.

“We need a full review of our national security policy, and I know Rex will face each problem head on with American interests and security as his top priority. I look forward to supporting his nomination," McConnell said.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynPolitics, not racism or sexism, explain opposition to Biden Cabinet nominees Biden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission MORE (R-Texas), the Senate's No. 2 Republican, also said Tuesday that he will support Tillerson's nomination.

Tillerson will need a simple majority to clear the upper chamber, meaning he can only lose up to 3 Republicans if no Democrat votes for him.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCindy McCain planning 'intimate memoir' of life with John McCain Trump-McConnell rift divides GOP donors Arkansas state senator says he's leaving Republican Party MORE (R-Ariz.), who carries sway on foreign policy and military issues, told NPR on Tuesday that he is reserving his judgment on Tillerson, but is concerned about his ties to Putin.

"I have concerns about what kind of business we do with a butcher, a murderer and a thug, which is exactly what Vladimir Putin is," he said.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Graham: Trump will 'be helpful' to all Senate GOP incumbents John Boehner tells Cruz to 'go f--- yourself' in unscripted audiobook asides: report MORE (R-S.C.), a close ally of McCain, also signaled that he will question Tillerson about his Russia ties.

"Based upon his extensive business dealings with the Putin government and his previous opposition of efforts to impose sanctions on the Russian government, there are many questions which must be answered. I expect the US-Russian relationship to be front and center in his confirmation process," he said in a statement. 

The nomination comes amid the Senate's long-running debate over how the United States should handle Russia and its increasingly aggressive posture in Syria and Eastern Europe.

Lawmakers in both parties have suggested they could move legislation next year to crack down on Moscow, setting up a potential break with the Trump administration.

Kellyanne Conway, a close Trump adviser, defended Tillerson on Monday, arguing his knowledge of Russia could be an advantage.

“We look at it as an asset, not a liability in that it's not that he's hanging around with Vladimir Putin on the weekend at dinner parties,” she told CBS’s "This Morning.”

Moscow awarded Tillerson the “Order of Friendship” in 2013 after a deal benefitting Exxon’s access to certain Arctic resources and state-controlled oil giant Rosneft. That is considered the country’s highest honor for a non-citizen.

--This report was updated at 12:44 p.m.