The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted Monday evening to recommend Mike Pompeo to become the secretary of state, narrowly avoiding what would have been the first unfavorable vote for the high-level U.S. Cabinet position in almost a century. But it took a bizarre series of events for the senators to get there.
A down-to-the-wire reversal by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who had staunchly opposed Pompeo’s nomination for weeks, gave Republicans the majority of votes they needed to endorse the CIA director for his new position — at least on paper.
The problem was that one of those votes belonged to Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who wasn’t physically present. Isakson, who was at a funeral in Atlanta delivering a eulogy for his best friend, voted yes by “proxy.”
All 10 Democrats voted against Pompeo, citing his lack of diplomatic experience, his comments on Muslims, and his overall hawkish stance, leaving the vote at 11-10. But according to the rules of the committee, a proxy vote cannot carry the majority in an otherwise tied vote, leaving the official count at 10-10.
After a brief break, Republican Sen. Bob Corker told the committee the options: They could keep the meeting open until 11:30 pm. when Isakson landed back in D.C. for an in-person vote; they could hold the vote until Tuesday morning, which could jeopardize Pompeo’s full confirmation before a NATO summit on Friday; or a Democrat on the committee could switch their vote to “present,” which contributes to quorum but not to either side.
Corker urged Democrats to respect the obvious message the committee was sending. With a Republican majority, it was obvious where the lawmakers stood overall, and a technicality would at best hold them until later that evening.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, said he feared setting a precedent and recommended leaving the vote open until Isakson returned, which would allow the lawmaker to cast his vote in person while not losing significant time by delaying until Tuesday.
That’s when Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware stepped in.
Coons, who announced his opposition to Pompeo’s nomination last week, switched his “no” vote to “present.” In doing so, Coons effectively canceled out Isakson’s absence, leaving the vote at 11-9, which was enough to send a favorable recommendation for Mike Pompeo to the Senate floor.
Coons said he respected Menendez’s concerns but noted what had happened during the meeting was not the “flight pattern” they anticipated.
“I’ve spoken to Johnny. I know how very demanding and draining this eulogy was for him today. I will vote present.
Sen. Isakson praised Coons soon after, thanking him for the the move in a tweet.
“Thank you to @ChrisCoons for voting present at today’s committee vote on the secretary of state nomination to accommodate my absence after delivering the eulogy at the funeral of a close friend in Atlanta. You are a good friend, and your kindness and decency is much appreciated,” Isakson tweeted.
Apparently nothing spurs bipartisanship more than the thought of having to work till 11 p.m.
Cover image: Getty