Marco Rubio may not support Rex Tillerson’s confirmation, but it likely won’t matter

Ever since Rex Tillerson was announced as Donald Trump’s secretary of state pick, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been gearing up for a fight.

On Wednesday, Rubio had his moment, repeatedly grilling Tillerson over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s human rights record and his conduct in Syria.

After Tillerson spent nine hours answering questions, Rubio told reporters he hasn’t decided if he will support the nomination.

“I’m prepared to do what’s right,” Rubio said. “I’m not analyzing it from a partisan standpoint. I’m going to go back and look through this, this is a very important decision. I recognize the partisan split on the committee and what it would all mean.”

Rubio was referring to the makeup of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 11 Senators to 10. His vote in theory would prevent the committee, led by early Trump supporter and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, from nominating Tillerson.

But history suggests Trump will get his way.

The last six presidents, from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, have made 109 Cabinet-level appointments that required Senate confirmation.

Only six have failed.

The last Cabinet appointment to lose a Senate confirmation vote was George H.W. Bush’s pick of John G. Tower to be secretary of defense in 1989. Tower’s bid was torpedoed over allegations that Tower cheated on his wife and abused alcohol.

Other Cabinet bids that failed were due to personal issues such as employing undocumented immigrants as nannies or revelations that Obama’s first pick for health and human services secretary failed to pay thousands of dollars in taxes. The nominees withdrew after the allegations surfaced during the vetting process.

The roadblocks to Tillerson’s nomination are not personal. Senators are concerned over the former Exxon CEO’s close ties with Russia, conflicts of interest arising from his long career in oil and gas and ability to run the state department without formal diplomatic experience.

Still, “it’s going to be hard for him to vote against” Tillerson, said George Mason University professor James Pfiffner, author of multiple books on presidential relations with Congress. “The pressure is going to be really high and opposition or criticism of Tillerson doesn’t seem to be substantive enough. Once Condi Rice and Robert Gates came out in favor of him . . . it’s going to be very difficult to hang on and vote against him.”

If Rubio decides to vote against Tillerson’s nomination and every Democrat on the foreign relations committee were also opposed, the Senate could still bypass the committee and put Tillerson’s nomination up for a full vote.

Then, two more Republicans would need to break party ranks with Rubio to sink Tillerson’s nomination. Republicans hold a 52-46 majority in the Senate, with two independents that caucus with Democrats. A tie would be broken by Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

A few other Republican senators, notably Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, also have expressed reservations about Tillerson.

“Do you support new sanctions?” Graham asked of Tillerson in December. “And if he doesn’t, it would be very hard for me to vote for him because you’re giving a green light for this behavior.”

Tillerson said Wednesday that he would keep the current sanctions against Russia for now, but that he is open to removing or amending them.

But the game plan to kill Tillerson’s nomination works only if every Democrat agrees with them.

As of Thursday, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Democrats on the foreign relations committee, notably Chris Coons of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey, may vote in favor of Tillerson because they are worried about whoever else Trump would nominate in Tillerson’s place.

“I've frankly been reflecting on if not Mr. Tillerson, who else might President-elect Trump choose?” Coons told MSNBC Wednesday evening. “He conducted a sort of Celebrity Apprentice review process to come up with a nominee for secretary of state and he seriously considered Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton, and I try to imagine how they would have fared in today's confirmation hearing.”

“I expect you will be confirmed,” Booker told Tillerson Wednesday.

For now, Rubio is earning praise as a tough questioner willing to buck party lines and the president-elect for the sake of democratic transparency.

Rubio said he must be certain that he’s making the right decision.

“I have to make sure that I’m 100 percent behind whatever decision I make because once I make it, it isn’t going to change,” he said.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty