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 Tuesday, though he praised Tillerson's success as CEO of ExxonMobil. "Rising to the level of CEO of a multinational 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 on nominees put forward by President-elect Donald Trump, and at least three GOP senators have raised serious concerns about Tillerson's links with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.
Toomey has a history of holding his views close to the vest: He hedged his judgment on Trump until less than two hours before polls closed on Election Day. He is the only Republican from 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 stressed that he received Russia's Order of Friendship medal in 2013.
"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. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will cast initial votes on the nomination.
Tillerson would hold what is usually the highest-profile post in the president's cabinet, and would be the face of United States diplomacy around the globe. Democrats said his dealings with Russia, where he helped seal deals for ExxonMobil, only heighten concerns about Trump's admiration for Putin and revelations about Russia's attempts to influence the U.S. election through hacking.
"It's not just the picture of Putin pinning a medal of friendship on his lapel," said Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), a member of the foreign relations panel. "It's really much more: 'What's the president's priorities?' "
At least three high-profile Republicans - Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio - have also raised concerns, hinting at a potentially difficult confirmation.
But other party leaders rallied behind Tillerson, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
It is rare for a president to be denied his pick for a cabinet post. The last nominee voted down was John G. Tower, a defense pick rejected in 1989. Since then, three nominees have withdrawn their names before votes were taken, most recently in 2009, according to congressional records.