Senators wrestle with whether to back Tillerson

Senators wrestle with whether to back Tillerson
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Rex Tillerson’s rocky performance at his confirmation hearing has left many senators on the fence about whether to support his nomination for secretary of State.

No Democrats have come out to publicly support Tillerson, and key Republicans aren’t saying how they’ll vote.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Cuban negotiator says Trump's efforts to destabilize Cuba's government will fail Freedom to Compete Act would benefit many American workers MORE (R-Fla.), who grilled Tillerson on human rights at the hearing and called his answers “discouraging,” hasn’t said whether he’ll support the nominee.

Neither has Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars DOJ: Dem subpoena for Mueller report is 'premature and unnecessary' Dems reject Barr's offer to view Mueller report with fewer redactions MORE (R-S.C.), who has questioned the former Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO’s relationship with Russia.

Yet Graham said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe" he thought Tillerson’s confirmation was “salvageable,” which suggests Tillerson is likely to get at least the 50 votes he needs to be confirmed — especially after he gives written answers to follow-up questions from various senators.

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Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEarth Day founder's daughter: Most Republican leaders believe in climate change in private Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Democrats need a 'celebrity' candidate — and it's not Biden or Sanders MORE (R-Ariz.), another critic of Tillerson’s ties to Russia and his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he is “still kind of making up [his] mind” about the nomination.

Rubio’s vote is key. Republicans have only a one-seat majority on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so if he opposed the nomination, the committee might not give Tillerson a favorable recommendation.

Even without support from the committee, Tillerson could still be confirmed on the Senate floor. But with Republicans holding a narrow 52-48 majority, opposition from even a handful of GOP senators could prove difficult to overcome.

Tillerson’s testimony Wednesday received mixed reviews. Some Republican senators on Thursday said they still had questions about how strong Tillerson would come out against Russia, denounce its President Vladimir Putin and call out human rights violations.

Democrats, meanwhile, assailed Tillerson on those matters, along with his contention that Exxon never lobbied against sanctions despite evidence that it did. They also criticized the company’s dealings with nations hostile to the United States and warned of the potential for massive conflicts of interest with Exxon Mobile’s former chief executive leading U.S. diplomacy. 

Graham and McCain have not ruled out voting for Tillerson. 

“Mr. Tillerson’s a very accomplished guy, but when it comes to Russia, I want more clarity,” Graham said early Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“I think war crimes were committed under Putin’s control and regime. And we’ll see if he can clean up his answers,” Graham continued, referring to Tillerson’s refusal to call Putin a “war criminal” or denounce some of his country’s military actions as war crimes.

“If he's not sure that what Russia did in Syria is a war crime based on the publicly available information I think it's important to go get briefed on the classified information and give us an answer on whether the Russian regime has been involved in the systematic killing of civilians,” Graham later told reporters. 

McCain said he still had similar concerns about Tillerson’s stance toward Russia. As the leader of Exxon Mobile, Tillerson struck up business relationships in the country and became close with Putin, who gave him the nation’s highest honor for a foreigner.

“I’m just still kind of making up my mind,” McCain said. “Obviously, I have concerns about Russia, as I’ve stated openly.”

The reservations being expressed in the Senate, just over a week before Inauguration Day, could make it difficult for President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE to have his main diplomat and one of his most important Cabinet members in place quickly. 

The Senate in the past has approved some Cabinet nominees on Inauguration Day, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Anti-smoking advocates question industry motives for backing higher purchasing age Former Bush assistant: Mueller report makes Obama look 'just plain bad' MORE (R-Ky.) wants to get at least the national security-related nominees confirmed that day. 

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn Cornyn Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Trump struggles to reshape Fed Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks MORE (R-Texas), who introduced Tillerson at the Wednesday hearing, said the secretary of State is definitely part of the national security team that Republicans hope to have in place Jan. 20, along with the attorney general, CIA chief, director of national intelligence and secretary of Homeland Security.

Cornyn warned Democrats against delaying nominees like Tillerson “for delay’s sake.”

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks McConnell: 'Past time' for immigration-border security deal MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, sidestepped when asked whether his party would allow Cabinet officials to be confirmed Jan. 20, instead saying that they need to have their nomination paperwork submitted before they can be confirmed. 

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump Democrats introduce bill to rein in Trump on tariffs MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he has a “sense” of when he would like to have a committee vote on Tillerson, but he wants "to see how this all gels for a little while before we try to ink it.” 

He is asking members of the panel to submit by the end of the day Thursday any additional questions for Tillerson. 

Democrats say they think Tillerson has major roadblocks to confirmation. 

“I don’t think he did much yesterday to answer the concerns of Republicans who are wavering, and he had lots of chances to take a tough line on Russia, and he didn’t bite,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates More than 30 Senate Dems ask Trump to reconsider Central American aid cuts Long-shot goal of nixing Electoral College picks up steam MORE (D-Conn.), a Foreign Relations Committee member.

As for Democratic support for Tillerson, Murphy didn’t see much of a chance: “I have not talked to any Democrats that are voting for him, I’ll put it that way.”

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said Tillerson had a “rough time” at the hearing.

“Maybe the lesson is to bring notes,” he said. 

Devin Henry contributed to this story.