- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2017

Former Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson, President Trump’s pick to be secretary of state, cleared a key hurdle on Capitol Hill on Monday night as Senate Republicans easily mustered the majority needed to head off a Democratic filibuster and pave the way for his confirmation this week.

In a 56-43 vote, Republicans picked up three Democratic votes to pierce the minority’s hoped-for united front against Mr. Trump’s unconventional nominee: Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Mark R. Warner of Virginia. Democratic-leaning independent Sen. Angus S. King Jr. of Maine also voted to advance Mr. Tillerson’s nomination.

The procedural vote sets into motion what is supposed to be a 30-hour Senate floor debate on the 64-year-old Mr. Tillerson. But the debate is expected to be dominated by arguments over Mr. Trump’s temporary ban of all refugees entering the U.S. and temporary hold on visas to citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Before the vote to begin debate on Mr. Tillerson, Republicans turned back a quick-strike effort by Senate Democrats to revoke the “extreme vetting” executive order that Mr. Trump signed Friday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, tried to force an immediate vote on Mr. Trump’s immigration and visa curbs but was stymied by Republican objections, although Democrats vowed the fight was just beginning.

“President Trump’s Muslim ban is unnecessary, it’s unconstitutional and it’s un-American,” Mrs. Feinstein said. “We won’t stand for these types of actions.”

Republicans, who hold a 52-vote majority in the Senate, are expected to push through Mr. Tillerson’s confirmation with a vote by the end of Wednesday.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 11-10 along party lines to advance Mr. Tillerson, but not before leading Senate Republicans such as Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona expressed concerns about Mr. Tillerson’s — and Mr. Trump’s — history of cordial relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

During his nomination hearing, lawmakers on both sides pressed Mr. Tillerson about close relationships he built with high-level Russian officials as head of Exxon Mobil Corp. — he was CEO from 2006 through 2016 — and the extent to which those relationships may influence his view of economic sanctions designed to contain Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine.

Mr. Tillerson questioned the use of economic penalties as a foreign policy tool, but he condemned suspected Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. He also said he believed Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula was illegal.

He was pressed about his record on climate change and raised eyebrows during his testimony with hawkish remarks criticizing China’s aggressive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

If confirmed, however, one of Mr. Tillerson’s first priorities will be implementing parts of Mr. Trump’s refugee and visa ban, one that many lower-level State Department officials and Foreign Service officers are reportedly condemning as misguided.

Mr. Trump’s executive order has halted all refugee access to the U.S. for 120 days and Syrian refugee access indefinitely. It also blocks visas from being issued to people from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Sudan — seven of the world’s more than 40 majority Muslim nations — for a minimum of 90 days.

Mr. Tillerson was noncommittal on the immigration changes under the new administration, voicing apprehension over Mr. Trump’s campaign call for a ban on “all Muslims” entering the U.S., but he also said he might be open to some kind of registry of Muslims living in the country.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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