As Pompeo signals hard Russia line, lawmakers want him to stand on his own from Trump

WASHINGTON, April 12 (Reuters) - U.S. senators preparing for Mike Pompeo's confirmation hearing on Thursday to become the next secretary of state said one of their main questions would be: will the CIA director be able to stand up to U.S. President Donald Trump?

Trump nominated Pompeo to become the country's top diplomat on March 13 when he fired Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil.

In his remarks, Pompeo will signal a harder line toward Moscow, while also delving into U.S. foreign policy challenges on North Korea, Iran and China, according to excerpts of his opening statement released in advance by the White House.

"Russia continues to act aggressively, enabled by years of soft policy toward that aggression. That's now over," he will say, according to the testimony.

Pompeo's nomination comes as the Trump administration weighs military action in Syria over a suspected poison gas attack, which killed dozens of people and injured hundreds in the town of Douma.

RELATED: A look at Mike Pompeo

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a meeting with CIA Director nominee Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., in his Capitol office on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Mike Pompeo (L) is sworn in as CIA Director by Vice President Mike Pence (R) as wife Susan Pompeo (2nd L) looks on at Eisenhower Executive Office Building January 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. Pompeo was confirmed for the position by the Senate this evening.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

UNITED STATES - JUNE 28: Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., right, chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi, conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center, June 28, 2016, to announce the Committee's report on the 2012 attacks in Libya that killed four Americans. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., also appears. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director nominee for President-elect Donald Trump, swears in to a Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Pompeo is seeking to reassure senators that he can shift from an outspoken policymaker to an objective spy chief if confirmed.

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a meeting with CIA Director nominee Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., in his Capitol office on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) arrives to testify before a Senate Intelligence hearing on his nomination of to be become director of the CIA at Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (R) finishes swearing in Mike Pompeo, flanked by his wife Susan Pompeo, to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the vice president's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Mike Pompeo gets a hug from supporter Jennifer O'Connor after arriving at the Sedgwick County Republican headquarters at Market Centre in Wichita, Kansas, on Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

(Fernando Salazar/Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images)

Adam Schiff (D-CA) left, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) center, and moderator Chuck Todd, right, appear on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015.

(William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for the director of the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) attends his confirmation hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mr. Pompeo is a former Army officer who graduated first in his class from West Point.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) listens as Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) speaks during his confirmation hearing to be the director of the CIA before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mr. Pompeo is a former Army officer who graduated first in his class from West Point.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., speaks during the news conference before a group of House Republican freshmen walked to the Senate to deliver a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday, March 30, 2011. The letter called on the Senate to pass a long term continuing resolution with spending cuts.

(Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)

US Congressman Mike Pompeo (C), R-Kansas, sits in the dark after a power failure with US Senator Pat Roberts (L), a former Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and former US Senator Bob Dole (R), R-Kansas, as he prepares to testify before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 12, 2017, on his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Trump administration.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., center, nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is introduced by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., right, and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., during Pompeo's Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building, January 12, 2017. The hearing was moved from Hart Building due to a peer outage.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Incoming Trump administration cabinet secretary nominees including Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson (L-R), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director nominee Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis arrive for meetings at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 13, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Mike Pompeo (2nd L), flanked by his wife Susan Pompeo (2nd R) and their son Nick Pompeo (R), signs his affidavit of appointment after being sworn in as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (L) in Pence's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

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In the excerpts, Pompeo does not refer to Russia's apparent meddling in the 2016 U.S. election campaign, but the issue is likely to be raised by both Democrats and Republicans, some of whom have accused Trump of failing to be tough on Moscow.

Trump forged a warm relationship with Pompeo during White House meetings over the first year of his presidency and feels the former Republican congressman shares more of his view of the world than Tillerson, who at times disagreed with the president.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they would press Pompeo on the administration's strategy on Syria, relations with Russia, North Korea's nuclear ambitions and plans for dealing with China's growing international influence.

Pompeo is seen as more hawkish than Tillerson, for example, as an outspoken opponent of the international nuclear agreement with Iran. In his testimony, he will try to shed the label of being a "hawk," arguing that he would prefer "unrelenting diplomacy rather than by sending young men and women to war."

But senators said a major concern was whether Pompeo, a former Republican congressman, would break from Trump or convince him to change his mind when necessary.

"His reputation is not that strong on standing up to the president," Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking foreign relations Democrat during most of Pompeo's tenure at the Central Intelligence Agency, told reporters after meeting with Pompeo.

"It is very important to me to know that the next secretary of state will stand up for what he believes in and represent the advice and expertise of the State Department," Cardin said.

Cardin voted against Pompeo as CIA director but said he had not made up his mind about the position at the State Department.

STATE DEPARTMENT CUTS

Republicans and Democrats have criticized the Trump administration for seeking sharp cuts in the State Department budget and failing to fill a host of diplomatic positions.

Pompeo faced resistance before his confirmation as CIA director last year over past comments on the agency's use of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques commonly regarded as torture.

Concerns have also been raised about Pompeo's record of anti-Muslim remarks and ties to anti-Islam groups. A CIA spokesman said Pompeo had "worked extensively, and successfully" at strengthening the agency's relationships with countries throughout the Muslim world.

While Pompeo will likely be confirmed by the full Senate if his hearing goes well, he could be the first nominee to be secretary of state not to be approved by the foreign relations committee, where Trump's Republicans have just an 11-10 majority.

Republican Senator Rand Paul is already a no, citing what he called Pompeo's support for war and past record on interrogations.

Senator Bob Corker, the committee's Republican chairman, said it was too early to tell how the vote would go and said even he had not decided how he would vote, though he had a "very good first meeting with him and a good conversation."

The Senate's Republican leaders can bring the nomination up for a vote even if Pompeo is reported unfavorably out of the committee. The date for the vote in the full Senate has not been set but is likely in the coming weeks. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle Editing by Diane Craft, Robert Birsel)

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