Four Senators who routinely side with Democrats broke party ranks to end debate on Rex Tillerson’s nomination as secretary of state on Monday, a move that puts the private sector deal-maker and Texan one step closer to being in charge of the nation’s foreign diplomacy.
Three of the senators who voted to end debate on the former Exxon Mobil CEO are up for reelection in 2018; Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia along with independent Angus King of Maine. Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner also voted to end debate.
Heitkamp and Manchin both hail from states that Donald Trump won by a large margin in November.
The Senate will officially vote to confirm Tillerson on Wednesday, which is likely a formality.
The three Democrats and one independent broke ranks from the Democratic leaders. Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and other Democrats vowed to stall Tillerson’s nomination until he answered questions on the Trump travel ban which bars refugees and citizens of seven majority Muslim countries.
Tillerson, a native of Wichita Falls, Texas, faced some intra-party opposition during the confirmation process due to his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tillerson declined to call Putin a war criminal when pressed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during his confirmation hearing earlier in January.
But the former oil executive was largely supported by Republican senators and even some Democrats who worried about Trump’s potential replacement if Tillerson’s nomination failed.
Tillerson will likely become the third Cabinet nominee confirmed by the Senate, joining Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. Elaine Chao will likely be confirmed by the Senate as transportation secretary later this week. Former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley was confirmed last week as ambassador to the United Nations.
The 64-year-old Tillerson, who retired from Exxon in December after spending his entire professional career at the oil and gas giant, was granted a $180 million retirement package that allows him to fully divest from Exxon before becoming America’s top diplomat.
Tillerson has no formal diplomatic experience, which puts him in uncharted territory among modern secretaries of state, but he frequently interacted with world leaders while conducting business with Exxon.
“He’s been a leader at one of America’s largest employers and he has the type of international work experience that will serve him well as our next secretary of state,” Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday before the vote.
Trump has made relations with China a large part of his foreign policy agenda, and Tillerson likely will be charged with overseeing a tricky relationship with the world’s second largest economy over issues like trade agreements and disputes over islands in the South China Sea.
Tillerson is one of two Texans expected to comprise Trump’s Cabinet, along with former Gov. Rick Perry who was nominated as secretary of energy.