The Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly endorsed Mike Pompeo as secretary of state after Republican Rand Paul withdrew his opposition on Monday, averting what could have been an embarrassing setback for the Trump administration.
Mr Pompeo’s confirmation in the full Senate had been expected before Monday’s committee vote, but tension over the administration’s hawkish foreign policy raised the possibility that the panel would deal the president a symbolic rebuke.
Mr Paul's switch tilted the balance. While nine Democrats opposed Mr Pompeo's nomination, 11 Republicans voted in favour, paving the way for his speedy confirmation – possibly in time for him to attend a Nato summit on Friday.
Mr Paul, a critic of US military intervention abroad, changed his position after saying on Twitter that he had received assurances from President Donald Trump that Mr Pompeo's hawkish foreign policy stance would not push the president towards foreign conflict.
"Today I received confirmation that director Pompeo agrees [with Mr Trump]," Mr Paul said. "President Trump believes that Iraq was a mistake, that regime change has destabilised the region and that we must end our involvement with Afghanistan. "
Mr Trump, who spoke to Mr Paul several times in connection with the vote, said earlier on Monday that the Kentucky senator had “never let me down”.
Mr Paul said he wanted the president to follow his own anti-interventionist instincts and resist the notion “that perpetual war is the answer to things”.
“I want Trump to be Trump,” Mr Paul said.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said he expected Mr Pompeo would be confirmed this week. Mr Pompeo's prospects in the full Senate were boosted after Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat running for re-election in the "red state" of North Dakota, had said she would support his nomination.
Mr Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman and Harvard Law School graduate, has already started shaping critical negotiations with North Korea. He also has been weighing in on whether Mr Trump should follow through on threats to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal by May 12th.
Like Mr Trump's new national security adviser John Bolton, Mr Pompeo has called for regime change in both Iran and North Korea. Democratic opposition reflected fears that the two hawks could drive US foreign policy to the right.
Thomas Wright, foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said the votes against Mr Pompeo also served as a proxy for dissatisfaction over Mr Bolton, whose role did not require Senate confirmation.
“I think it’s really a statement of no confidence in Trump’s foreign policy rather than in Pompeo himself,” said Mr Wright. “There are a lot of anxieties about what this new team means.”
During hearings, Mr Pompeo played down his past interventionist statements. But Tim Kaine, a Democratic senator who supported his nomination as CIA director, opposed his new role, saying he sensed an "anti-diplomacy disposition".
Bob Corker, the top Republican on the committee, said there was "probably" no one in the US who knew more about what is happening in the world than Mr Pompeo due to his CIA role. Mr Corker blamed opposition to his nomination on a "very partisan environment".
Presidential cabinet nominations for the state department role have tended to sail through the Senate with bipartisan support. Republicans overwhelmingly endorsed Democratic nominees for the role, including former presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.
Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee, dismissed the accusation of partisanship as "ridiculous". – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018