Democrats mull audacious play to block Pompeo

Greg Nash

Democrats are mulling an audacious plan to bottle up President Trump’s nominee to head the State Department in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — even though Mike Pompeo likely has enough votes to win confirmation on the Senate floor.  

The plan under consideration would involve Democrats on the panel refusing to vote to discharge Pompeo, who is currently the director of the CIA, from the committee with even an unfavorable recommendation.


This would force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to offer a motion to bring Pompeo’s nomination to the Senate floor. Democratic senators and aides say that motion would be subject to a filibuster, allowing Democrats to block Pompeo.

The move is politically risky.

It would heighten partisan tensions and play into President Trump’s arguments that Democrats are actively obstructing him. Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s (N.D.) announcement Thursday that she will back Pompeo’s nomination means he almost certainly will have at least 50 votes on the floor.

Any procedural victory for Democrats could also be short-lived.

Republicans say that McConnell could simply trigger the so-called nuclear option, whereby he would rule the Democratic maneuver out of order and bring Pompeo’s nomination to the floor. He’d need just a majority vote to do so.

Nonetheless, a group of Democratic senators are pressing Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to consider the plan as a way of using Pompeo’s nomination as leverage on another thorny matter: protecting special counsel Robert Mueller.

They want to pressure McConnell to agree to a sense-of-the-Senate resolution stating that Mueller should be allowed to complete his investigation.

Schumer’s office declined to comment on its strategy for Pompeo’s nomination or negotiations with McConnell over a floor vote.

Several Democratic senators talked to The Hill about the internal conversations and confirmed the plan is under consideration.

But one of the senators said there’s been no decision and that Schumer could decide the risks are not worth the reward.

“Schumer may be not want to go nuclear. This whole thing with 60 votes, it’s a real nuclear play. It’s first Schumer making the play to require them to go 60, and then the second play is McConnell going nuclear,” the senator said.

Schumer may also want to avoid putting vulnerable Democrats running for reelection in pro-Trump states in a tough position.

Red-state Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.), who are undecided on Pompeo, will be pressed by GOP opponents on whether they support Schumer’s tactic.

Heitkamp, Manchin and Donnelly are among the 14 Democrats plus Independent Sen. Angus King (Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats, who voted to confirm Pompeo as CIA director.

Democrats already had leverage in the battle over Pompeo because of Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) opposition to Trump’s nominee. Because Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is also absent from the Senate as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer, that left Republicans with a maximum of 49 votes.

Heitkamp’s announcement, however, changes calculations by delivering a potential 50th vote to Pompeo.

It’s theoretically possible that Paul could back the Democratic maneuver, though that would seem unlikely given the break it would represent with his party and the White House.

On the panel, Paul is expected to vote against Pompeo along with the committee’s Democrats, preventing him from winning a favorable vote.

Every Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee has said they will vote against Pompeo except for Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.), who says he is “leaning against” the nominee. Coons says that Pompeo has also asked for one more chance to talk to him.

Trump has stepped up pressure on Paul in recent days to support Pompeo.

“I will say this about Rand Paul: He’s never let me down,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.

Trump called Paul on Wednesday and asked him to meet with Pompeo. Paul has agreed to do so but hasn’t promised the president anything else.

If Pompeo fails to win enough votes to secure a favorable recommendation to the floor, then the Foreign Relations panel will vote to send him to the floor with an unfavorable recommendation.

Democrats on the panel say if they also vote against the unfavorable recommendation to discharge, then Pompeo will be bottled up in committee and McConnell will have to offer a motion on the floor to discharge him, which is subject to a filibuster and a 60-vote threshold.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) declined to comment on what would happen next if Democrats block Pompeo in committee but he believes McConnell could get around it.

“There are other ways of doing it,” he said.  

McConnell could offer a motion on the floor declaring that actions to discharge nominees who fail to receive favorable or unfavorable recommendations in committee are not subject to filibuster.

That motion would have to be backed up a simple majority vote of the entire Senate.

But Corker doesn’t think it will come to that.

“I think it will end up getting worked out,” he said.

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) dismissed the possible Democratic gambit as a pipe dream.

“I think that’s wishful thinking,” he said. “They’re wishing it.”

Tags Angus King Bob Corker Christopher Coons Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Heidi Heitkamp Joe Donnelly Joe Manchin John Cornyn John McCain Mike Pompeo Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Robert Mueller

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