(CNN)President Donald Trump's nominee to be secretary of state, facing an uphill climb to win Senate confirmation, is moving behind the scenes to win over moderate Democratic senators who could provide a lifeline to his nomination once it reaches the Senate floor.
Pompeo moves to court moderate Dems ahead of tough vote in committee
The nominee, Mike Pompeo, will face a grilling Thursday during his hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But in an unusual move, Pompeo is already privately courting moderate Democratic senators who don't serve on that committee, in what lawmakers in both parties say is a sign of the significant challenges facing the nomination.
Already, Pompeo has lost the support of Republican Rand Paul, a Kentucky senator who serves on the committee, which is a significant defection given the GOP's one-vote advantage on the panel. That means Pompeo will have to win over at least one Democratic vote to get a favorable vote in committee. The focus will heavily be on New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, both of whom voted for Pompeo as CIA director and serve on the panel.
But both senators have been skeptical of Pompeo's nomination to State, as many Democrats raise concerns over his hawkish views and worry he won't be an independent voice willing to stand up to Trump. And in the event that all committee Democrats vote against his nomination and Paul votes "no," Republicans would be forced to take procedural steps to advance the nomination to the floor without a recommendation from the panel, amounting to a rebuke to the nominee.
Pompeo still, however, could be confirmed as secretary of state if he wins a simple majority on the floor. But with a narrowly divided chamber, Sen. John McCain absent as he recovers from brain cancer and if Paul remains a "no" vote, Pompeo would need at least one Democratic senator to break ranks to advance the nomination.
So behind the scenes, Pompeo, a former House member who lawmakers say is skilled at the art of schmoozing privately with senators, is beginning his outreach to potential "yes" votes on the floor. He met for about an hour Monday evening with Sen. Angus King, the independent Maine senator who caucuses with Democrats and voted for Pompeo as CIA director. He also met with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, a vulnerable Democrat who is open to backing his nomination to State but also does not serve on the Foreign Relations Committee.
And he may meet soon with Sen. Joe Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat who faces a tough re-election this year.
"I've left that completely open before he testifies," Manchin told CNN when asked about voting for Pompeo.
Heitkamp said she had a "good meeting" with Pompeo late last month. "I'm waiting for the hearing before I decide what I'm going to do. ... My biggest concern would be the exercise of independent judgment."
Pompeo has been privately assuring senators he'd be a voice of moderation within the administration, even suggesting he would not advocate tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, which he has sharply criticized in the past, saying it should be fixed first before any decision to nix it, according to two other senators who have met with him.
Whether that's enough to win over Democrats remains to be seen.
"I think it's way too early to make that prediction," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and a member of the panel who met with Pompeo for 45 minutes Tuesday but made clear he still has concerns about the nominee. "I think most members of the committee have not made decisions. ... It's way too early to make those judgments."
Pompeo won the support of King and 14 Democrats as CIA director, but nearly all of them have made clear that they view the State Department much differently and are approaching this vote more skeptically.
It would be highly unusual for Pompeo to be confirmed without a favorable vote in the committee. From 1987 to 2016, the Senate didn't confirm any nominee who got an unfavorable vote in their respective committees, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. During that time, two Cabinet-level nominees were rejected on the floor of the Senate after failing to win approval in committee, including John Tower as secretary of defense in 1989 and John Bolton in 2005, who was filibustered by Senate Democrats to be United Nations ambassador before being installed as a recess appointment by then-President George W. Bush.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said Tuesday it's premature to say whether the GOP leadership will advance the nomination to the floor should Pompeo lose support in the committee. The Tennessee Republican said he's "very impressed" with Pompeo but that Democratic opposition could be significant.
"I think the frustrations that some Democrats have with the President might affect how they vote," Corker said. "I'm just being honest."
Another complication for Pompeo: He faces a top Democrat on the committee, Bob Menendez, who is prepared to aggressively question the nominee at the hearing Thursday. Menendez was not the top Democrat during last year's hearings for Pompeo's predecessor, Rex Tillerson, because the New Jersey Democrat had been sidelined amid corruption charges. After being cleared of the charges, Menendez has resumed his top spot and is bound to set the tone for an aggressive hearing.
"Menendez is going to be tough," said one Democratic source on the committee.
A source familiar with Pompeo's confirmation prep said he's met with many senators not on the committee, in addition to lawmakers who serve on the panel, including Menendez.
"He is taking this extremely seriously. He is meeting with every person he can, given the time that he has, to help the confirmation process -- not only with the committee," the source said. "He realizes a hundred senators will be voting for him. He has not assumed confirmation at all."
During his private meetings, the source said, he's heard a lot of policy-related differences, and has been asked to explain his past votes and controversial comments he made during campaigns. He has been trying to contextualize these votes and statements, the source said.
While Democrats have pressed him about the administration's views on a wide range of topics, from North Korea to Russia, they are eager to hear how he'll manage a department that has been depleted.
"The big thing is that while they may (disagree) on specific policies, they have in Mike Pompeo a person who is willing to work with them to strengthen the State Department," the source close to the nominee said.
It's still possible Pompeo could get a favorable vote in committee. While Paul is likely to vote against him, the two men may meet before Thursday, the senator told CNN.
Plus Pompeo met with Kaine and Shaheen Tuesday, and both kept the door open to his nomination.
"These hearings have changed my mind before," Kaine told CNN. "So I'm walking in with a lot of questions but I'll wait until the hearing."
Beyond their policy differences, Shaheen said she wants to know Pompeo's thoughts on restoring the morale of the State Department, its diplomatic corps and Tillerson's reorganization efforts.
"This is a very different job than CIA director," she said. "It's different skills."