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Toomey cautious on key Trump nominee Tillerson; Dems raise sharp questions

WASHINGTON — As Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson faces sharp questions over his ties to Russia, and every Republican vote for his confirmation looms as critical, Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) is taking a careful approach.

"I don't know the man, so I'm going to withhold any kind of judgment until I've had a chance to learn about him and meet with him," Toomey said in a telephone interview Tuesday, though he praised Tillerson's success as CEO of ExxonMobil. "Rising to the level of CEO of a multi-national corporation requires a lot of talent and skill, so he's got to be a very capable guy."

With Republicans holding 52 Senate seats next year, they can afford few defections, and at least three Republican senators have raised stern questions about Tillerson's personal links with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Toomey has a history of holding his views close to the vest: he hedged his judgment on president-elect Donald Trump until less than two hours before polls closed on Election Day. Along the way, Toomey, himself seeking reelection, vowed to be an independent voice willing to criticize either party, and also stressed national security.

On that front, Toomey joined a bipartisan chorus calling for a Congressional investigation into Russia's hacking during the election, and a strong response.

"We should absolutely get to the bottom of what the Russians did, how they did it, what their intent was," Toomey said in a telephone interview. If they did try to effect the election, "there has to be consequences for them ... they've got to learn a lesson that that's totally unacceptable at all times."

Toomey is the only Republican in the Philadelphia region who will get a vote on Tillerson's confirmation. The oil and gas executive seems unlikely to find any support among the area's Democrats, who have sharply criticized his links to Putin, who 2013 gave Tillerson an Order of Friendship medal.

"The stakes could not be higher and I am deeply troubled with the idea of a Secretary of State Tillerson guaranteeing dictator Vladimir Putin has a willing accomplice in the presidential cabinet," said a statement from Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will cast initial votes on Tillerson's nomination.

He and other local Democrats argued that business deals focused on stability and profit are far different from standing up for democracy, a free press and other American values.

Tillerson would occupy what is usually the most high-profile post in the president's cabinet, and would be the face of the United States diplomacy around the globe. Democrats say his dealings with Russia, where he helped seal business deals for ExxonMobil, only heightens concerns about Trump's admiration for Putin and revelations about Russia's attempts to influence the U.S. election.

"It's not just the picture of Putin pinning a medal of friendship on his lapel that'll be the focus of some concern. It's really much more: 'What's the president's priorities?' " said Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), another member of the foreign relations panel. "At a time when Russia has renewed its aggression at a level unprecedented since the Cold War, I do think you have a bipartisan group of senators with grave concern."

At least three high-profile Republicans — Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio — have raised concerns about the Tillerson pick, hinting at a potentially challenging confirmation.

But none of those lawmakers definitively said they would vote against Tillerson, and other party leaders rallied behind the nominee, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In the Philadelphia area, Sens. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and Tom Carper (D., Del.) all leveled criticisms similar to those brought up by Menendez and Coons.

It is rare, however, for a president to be denied his pick for a cabinet post. The last nominee to be voted down in the Senate was John G. Tower, a secretary of defense pick rejected in 1989. Since then, three other cabinet nominees have withdrawn their names before votes were taken, the latest in 2009, according to Congressional records.

There was bipartisan unity, on the other hand, when it comes to Russia's hacking into political party email accounts. Some in the intelligence community believe the country aimed to help Trump.

Local lawmakers on both sides aisle endorsed calls for a thorough Congressional investigation.

Booker criticized Trump for seeming to dismiss the Central Intelligence Agency's assessment and deriding the intelligence community.

"The president-elect should not dismiss the CIA's work in 140 characters; he should heed warnings from our intelligence professionals and support efforts to get to the bottom of this serious threat," he said in a news release.

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