WASHINGTON — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) has emerged as the key player who could halt President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state from being confirmed by the Senate.
In what is shaping up to be a dramatic confirmation fight, the former presidential candidate has expressed deep concerns about elevating Rex Tillerson to be the nation’s top diplomat.
Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, has developed strong ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin and other senior Kremlin officials — a source of anxiety for Democrats and Republicans alike who are shaken by US intelligence saying Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential election.
Three top Republican lawmakers have already conveyed that they may oppose Tillerson’s bid due to his close relationship with Russia, including Rubio, Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
But as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — which will vote on whether to support the nomination and send it to the Senate floor — Rubio wields the most power. Republicans hold just a one-seat majority on the committee, so if Democrats uniformly oppose Tillerson, the former presidential candidate could ultimately decide his fate.
When asked by reporters Wednesday, after a marathon confirmation hearing, if he was prepared to be the only member of his party to vote no, Rubio said, “Well, I’m prepared to do what’s right.”
The Florida legislator was humiliatingly defeated by Trump in his bid for the GOP presidential nomination; Trump ridiculed him as “Little Marco.”
Rubio has been more critical of the Texas native than his GOP peers. He let his frustration with Tillerson show while questioning the nominee this week over whether he thought Russia committed war crimes in Syria and if Saudi Arabia was a human rights violator.
After Tillerson would not agree to such designations, saying he wanted “more information” before reaching a conclusion, Rubio voiced his indignation.
“I was not trying to get you involved in the international game of name calling,” Rubio said at the hearing. “But in order to have moral clarity, we need clarity. We can’t achieve moral clarity with rhetorical ambiguity.”
If Tillerson makes it through committee, he would need nearly the entire Republican delegation behind him — unless some Democrats vote in his favor — as the GOP hold a slim majority of 52 out of 100 seats in that chamber.
But a number of Democrats have already stated they will seek to thwart Tillerson’s ascension, including Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D), Hillary Clinton’s former running mate who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee.
“He has a notable record of business success and a laudable commitment to civic affairs. But he did not demonstrate the awareness, judgment or independence I expect from our nation’s top diplomat,” he said.
On Wednesday, Tillerson laid out his views on Israel for the first time publicly.
During his confirmation hearing, Tillerson voiced support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, possibly putting him at odds with the president-elect’s team, which has indicated that they may not back such an outcome.
Trump’s pick for US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a vocal supporter and donor of West Bank settlements. He told the The Times of Israel in November that, in his discussions with Trump, “a two-state solution is not a priority. I don’t think he is wed to any particular outcome. A two-state solution is a way, but it’s not the only way.”
Tillerson, however, told Senators that two states is “the dream that everyone is in pursuit of” but that “whether it can ever be a reality remains to be seen.”
The two-state solution, he added, “has to be a shared aspiration of all of us. It’s the State Department’s role to try and create an environment that brings parties together that want to find a way forward. I can tell you that under the conditions today, it’s extremely challenging to do that, but that has to be the aspirational goal.”
Tillerson also condemned Palestinian violence as an obstacle to peace and castigated the recent United Nations Security Council resolution the Obama administration allowed through that branded Israeli settlements as illegal.
Regarding the Iran nuclear deal, he said he wanted a “full review” of the agreement once the Trump administration assumed power and a return to the US demand that Iran not be allowed to enrich any uranium.
The United States had previously held that position but made a shift during negotiations of the accord, which allows Tehran to enrich up to 3.67% of uranium for 15 years and only for peaceful purposes.