The U.S. Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson as President Donald Trump's secretary of state on Wednesday, filling a key spot on the Republican's national security team despite concerns about the former Exxon Mobil Corp chief executive officer's ties to Russia.
The vote, mostly along party lines, was by far the closest in at least half a century.
Fifty-six senators backed Tillerson, and 43 voted no. Every Republican favored Tillerson, along with four members of the Democratic caucus.
Tillerson's predecessor in the position, John Kerry, was confirmed by 94 to 3. Condoleezza Rice, the last secretary of state nominated by a Republican, was confirmed by 85-13.
Republicans overcame a demand by Democrats to delay the confirmation until Tillerson provided his views on Trump's executive order banning immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries and temporarily halting the entry of refugees.
One of Tillerson’s first challenges as the top U.S. diplomat will be dealing with the fallout from the order, which has brought condemnation from governments around the world.
They said they wanted to ask Tillerson more questions about the issue after Trump signed the order on Friday, prompting protests and chaos at airports across the country and uncertainty and disruption for travelers around the world.
But Republicans hold a majority of 52 seats in the 100-member Senate, and so far have confirmed all of the six Trump nominees who have come up for votes.
“I’m confident as secretary of state he will protect the interests of the American people just as he protected the interests of Exxon Mobil shareholders as their CEO,” Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, said during hours of floor debate in the Senate before the vote.
Senators had also expressed concerns over Tillerson's ties to Russia after the executive spent years there working for the oil company. Tillerson and Putin negotiated a $1 billion exploration project that’s been frozen since the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia after it seized Crimea the following year.
“How can the American people be sure that Mr. Tillerson will be objective when he participates in matters relating to sanctions on Russia or in any matter relating to Exxon,” Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts said in the floor debate Tuesday. “Mr. Tillerson is looking at the world through oil-coated glasses. He may have gotten rid of Exxon’s stock, but he hasn’t gotten rid of Exxon’s mindset.”
Tillerson’s diplomatic challenge will be to explain to world leaders Trump’s provocative tweets and comments upending decades of foreign-policy conventional wisdom -- from his optimism about reaching deals with Putin to his threats to impose tariffs on goods from China, and from questioning the relevance of the NATO alliance to warning of a trade war with Mexico.
Tillerson, 64, retired as chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil at the end of 2016 after a four-decade career at the company.
Republicans and other Tillerson supporters said they thought he would be a strong leader as the country's top diplomat, citing his experience running a giant corporation operating on six continents. They also said it was important to finalize Trump's national security team quickly, to address international crises and reassure allies wondering about the new president's "America First" foreign policy.
During his confirmation hearing last month, Tillerson said he was optimistic that Trump was open to hearing his views. "My sense is we’re going to have all the views presented on the table, and everyone will be given the opportunity to express those, and the president will decide," Tillerson said.