New Mexico’s U.S. senators this week each met with one of President-elect Donald Trump’s key cabinet picks – Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, the nominee to lead the Department of Defense.
Udall met Thursday with Tillerson, the ex-CEO of ExxonMobile, while Heinrich met with Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who is nominated to head the Department of Defense, on Wednesday.
The meetings were in advance of each nominee’s confirmation hearing. Tillerson’s hearing is next Wednesday, Jan. 11, while Mattis’ has not been scheduled. Udall sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will consider Tillerson’s nomination, while Heinrich is on the Armed Service Committee, which will consider Mattis.
After both meetings had taken place, Heinrich sounded optimistic about Mattis’ nomination, but stopped short of saying he would vote for him. Udall voiced a bit less optimism about Tillerson.
Mattis’s nomination, while generally viewed more favorably by Senate Democrats than Tillerson’s, is more complicated. In addition to needing 51 votes for confirmation in the Senate, Mattis needs 60 votes from the Senate to approve a waiver that exempts him from a law that prohibits military officers from serving as Defense secretary for seven years after they’ve retired.
In a telephone interview, Heinrich described Mattis as “very intelligent” and said they talked at length about New Mexico’s nuclear weapons labs, as well as the “specific roles that different New Mexico military bases play that are unique to the evolving mission set of the military right now.”
“It was a great first-time conversation,” Heinrich said. “I put some issues that are incredibly important to New Mexico in particular on his radar screen. He is a very intelligent person and has always been known as such. I think he has spent a lot of his life studying both the history and the strategy of military history.”
But Heinrich said he’s concerned about a law requiring a 10-year separation between the time someone serves as an active member of the military and them taking control of the Pentagon. The law was designed to preserve ultimate civilian – as opposed to military – control of the nation’s armed forces.
“I’m still looking at the issue of the fact that we need to change the law and…the fundamental requirements we have put in in terms of civilian oversight,” Heinrich said. “There are some strong reasons for why that exists. We’re working through that and I’ll make a decision about what I think is best for the country and New Mexico in the end.”
“It’s a fundamental change in the law. I think we need to weigh that against the qualifications of this particular applicant.”
As for Tillerson, Udall was less upbeat. In a statement issued Thursday, Udall said he was “concerned and skeptical about a career executive of a massive oil and gas company — who has no government experience — serving as the nation’s Secretary of State.”
However, Udall also mentioned what he sees as some bright spots in a potential Tillerson tenure at the State Department. Specifically, he mentioned the former oil executive’s belief in climate science and willingness to keep the U.S. as a party to the Paris Agreement.
“Exxon’s overseas oil and gas interests are vast and spread across the world, including in areas of major U.S. foreign policy significance like Russia, Iraq, and Latin America,” Udall said. “While I compliment Mr. Tillerson on officially divesting from Exxon, this is an unprecedented nomination for many reasons. I think the American people deserve more assurance than we’ve received so far that he will be able to represent their values when U.S. policy goals conflict with Exxon’s ongoing corporate interests. Mr. Tillerson told me in our meeting that he is willing to make his tax information public, and I strongly urge him to release his tax returns before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearings begin on Wednesday.