Panel approves Ratcliffe for spy chief, sends to full Senate

In this May 5, 2020, photo, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee during his nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Donald Trumps pick to be the nations top intelligence official, Ratcliffe, is adamant that if confirmed he will not allow politics to color information he takes to the president. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool) (Andrew Harnik, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – The Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday approved the nomination of Texas GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe to be director of national intelligence, sending the nomination to the Senate floor for his likely confirmation.

“I'm happy we were able to get Ratcliffe out of the committee and hopefully get floor action quickly,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the panel's new acting chairman, told reporters. “It's an important position and it needs to be filled as soon as possible.”

Rubio was tapped Monday to temporarily replace North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, who stepped aside as the FBI investigates his stock trades.

Republicans have praised Ratcliffe, an ardent defender of President Donald Trump, while Democrats have been skeptical that he would serve with the independence they say is crucial for the job. Ratcliffe sought to shed his reputation as a Trump loyalist at his confirmation hearing earlier this month, insisting he would lead the nation’s intelligence agencies without partisan influence.

Ratcliffe would replace Dan Coats, a former GOP senator who was popular in Congress but who clashed with Trump in his two years in the job. Richard Grenell, who is close to Trump, is now the acting director.

Ratcliffe was first picked for the post last summer, shortly after Coats’ resignation, but then withdrew after some Senate Republicans questioned his experience. GOP senators warmed to Ratcliffe after Trump unexpectedly nominated him again in February.

The months in between were a tumultuous time in the intelligence community, as Trump ousted and fired multiple officials, and senators have said they are eager for a permanent replacement for Coats.

At his hearing, Ratcliffe worked to separate himself from the president, including by saying he believed Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, a conclusion Trump has often resisted. He said he would communicate to Trump the intelligence community’s findings even if he knew Trump disagreed with them and might fire him.

Democrats were not convinced. The top Democrat on the panel, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, told Ratcliffe at the hearing that “I don’t see what has changed since last summer” when his nomination was withdrawn.

Ratcliffe’s nomination was approved 8-7 in a closed committee hearing, with all Democrats voting against it, according to a committee aide.

Ratcliffe sits on the House intelligence, judiciary and ethics committees. He forcefully questioned former special counsel Robert Mueller last summer when Mueller testified about the Russia investigation.

He was also a member of Trump’s impeachment advisory team last fall and aggressively questioned witnesses during the House impeachment hearings.

The vote on Ratcliffe was Rubio's first official action as chairman. Burr said last week that he would step aside after federal agents showed up at his home with a warrant to search his cellphone. The Justice Department is investigating whether Burr exploited advance information when he unloaded as much as $1.7 million in stocks in February, days before the coronavirus pandemic caused markets to plummet.

Burr, who remains on the committee, has denied any wrongdoing.