After eight hours of prosecutorial questioning from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, secretary of state designee Rex Tillerson left the building unsure if he’d made any dent with the senators who were concerned over his views on Russia. The strongest doubter wasn’t a Democrat but the Republican junior senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, a politician who has a real talent for keeping himself in the headlines.
Because Republicans only have a one-seat majority on the Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson can’t lose a single Republican vote if he’s to be favorably recommended to the full Senate. Although Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can always use his power to bring Tillerson’s nomination to the floor regardless, the committee’s rejection would be a big hit to the credibility of the former Exxon-Mobil CEO. Rubio may end up as the kingmaker in this entire process. The man who was repeatedly characterized as a little child with small hands by the president-elect now has an opportunity to pay back the kindness in full.
Guessing where Rubio will fall on the Tillerson question is now the predominating Washington parlor game. The media (not fake news) is trying to decipher Rubio’s motives, with CNN, Politico, and The Hill all running stories with a familiar theme: will Rubio vote “yea” or “nay?” And if he votes “nay,” what does that vote say about his willingness to stand up to the new president?
Rubio’s intensive questioning of Tillerson leads one to believe that a “no” vote is coming. Rubio appears to worry that Tillerson is too soft on human rights and too coddling of authoritarian governments. At certain times during the hearing, Tillerson tried to assure the senator that his own views on human rights and international law are in the mainstream, that, if confirmed, he would use his status as America’s top diplomat to press governments the world over to treat their citizens with dignity, respect and humanity. If Rubio was satisfied with that answer, he certainty didn’t show it.
It’s not all roses for Rubio, however. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. But in Washington, responsibility is in the eye of the beholder. Vote “no,” and Rubio will look to many like an opportunist who is willing to tank one of the most important cabinet nominees of the new administration out of spite, jealousy, anger, self-promotion, or all of the above. Vote “yes” and others will say Rubio looks like a chicken who backed down in fear of Trump’s wrath.
One can’t escape the conclusion that Rubio is leveraging the Tillerson nomination to regain his political capital after a terrible performance in the 2016 GOP primary, in which he only won one state and lost his home state of Florida by 18 points. What better way to bounce back than by needling one of the president-elect’s most critical national security posts? The big question is whether such a move will work, because if it doesn’t, there is a possibility that Rubio will be shut out of the White House.