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Rex Tillerson Represents A Major Test For Republicans

12/20/2016 06:59 EST | Updated 12/20/2016 06:59 EST
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Republican senators who have been hawkish on Russia will likely be placed in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to confirm Exxon Mobil CEO, Rex Tillerson, President-elect Trump's nomination for Secretary of State. There is a chance, albeit one with low probability, that Tillerson's nomination will not even reach the Senate floor.

The first step to Tillerson's nomination process will be to receive a successful vote from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As it stands, the committee is comprised of 10 Republicans and 9 Democrats, which creates a small margin of error for Republicans looking to confirm Tillerson.

If Tillerson's nomination proceeds successfully through the committee, the vote on the Senate floor has its own inherent challenges as two Republican senators, John McCain and James Lankford, have expressed some concerns with the pick.

When the vote is expected to take place in January, the Republicans will have a 52-48 seat majority in the Senate.

Depending on who you speak to, the case against Tillerson varies. The notion of the CEO from one of the world's largest oil companies becoming the Secretary of State certainly draws ire from many progressives concerned with the potential environmental impact that may result. Senator Bernie Sanders said: "In this appointment, Mr. Trump is making it abundantly clear that the short-term profits of the fossil fuel industry are more important than climate change and the future of the planet. Very sad. Very dangerous. Mr. Tillerson must be opposed."

However, it is not environmental concerns which create real skepticism around the security of Tillerson's nomination; instead, it is his deep ties to Russia, including Tillerson's "warm relationship" with Vladimir Putin, and a personal friendship with Igor Sechin, chief of the state-owned oil company, Rosneft, and widely considered the second most powerful man in Russia.

Following the signing of major deals with Rosneft, Tillerson won the bizarre Order of Friendship award from Russia in 2013. The partnership led to a drilling program where ExxonMobil spent $650 million to drill an exploratory well in the Arctic's Kara Sea.

"It is not to say that TIllerson should be unequivocally rejected for secretary of state, however, there are serious concerns that Congress has a responsibility to thoroughly examine."

As such, TIllerson has been publicly skeptical of sanctions imposed against Russia following the annexation of Crimea, which have halted some of Exxon Mobil's biggest projects in the country.

The company has billions of dollars in oil contracts with Russia, including one to explore and pump in Siberia, which on its own, could be worth tens of billions of dollars. The removal of sanctions would enable each of these potentially lucrative projects to move forward.

According to filings from the Securities and Exchange Commission, Tillerson currently owns $233,078,184 of Exxon Mobil stock. The sheer magnitude of Tillerson's holding in Exxon Mobil make his nomination particularly complicated, as it is unclear how potential conflicts of interest will be handled, if at all.

What further complicates this matter is that Tillerson's nomination comes following the release of a CIA report that alleges Russia interfered in the US presidential election in effort to boost Trump's campaign.

This has resulted in a bipartisan approach led by senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Charles Schumer, and Jack Reed, to urge for an investigation by Congress on Russia's potential involvement.

It is not to say that TIllerson should be unequivocally rejected for secretary of state, however, there are serious concerns that Congress has a responsibility to thoroughly examine.

If the Republican Party acquiesces to Tillerson's nomination without a thorough process in which the extent of his relationship with Russia is scrutinized, they will signal that they are willing to take a new approach to working with Russia. What is more important however, is for Congress to ensure that Tillerson directly addresses and mitigates these potential conflicts of interest, this may include setting up a blind trust, divestment, or reducing his holdings in Exxon Mobil.

If the Republicans in Congress fail to place effective pressure on Tillerson, then they will show that they are more than willing to turn a blind eye to any potential conflicts of interest that may arise with anyone within the Trump administration.

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