WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio aggressively questioned Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson over Russia policy Wednesday and said it was "discouraging" that Tillerson would not label Vladimir Putin a war criminal.
Rubio, R-Fla., was also clearly unhappy with Tillerson's measured response about sanctions, with Tillerson suggesting efforts to build relationships might be preferred.
The tough inquiry follows Rubio's previous expression of concern about Tillerson, who grew close to the Russian president while working for ExxonMobil. Rubio has the potential to scuttle Tillerson's nomination, but it remains to be seen if he will go that far to cross President-elect Donald Trump.
Wearing a stern face during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Rubio pointedly asked Tillerson, "Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?"
Tillerson replied, "I would not use that term."
Rubio then brought up Russian activity in Aleppo, Syria, and that enemies of Putin, including journalists, have ended up dead. Again, Tillerson was more reserved and said he would have to know more.
"None of this is classified," Rubio shot back.
Earlier, Tillerson did express a harder line on Russia, though he blamed an "absence" of U.S. leadership for recent Russian actions. Tillerson called reports of Russian meddling in the election "troubling" and, pressed by Rubio, said it was a "fair assumption" that Putin was involved.
Later Wednesday, Rubio extracted a promise from Tillerson that, if confirmed as secretary of state, he would recommend Trump veto a bill lifting the Cuban embargo.
Toward the end, when Rubio was asking about human rights in Saudi Arabia, Tillerson seemed annoyed.
"Our interests are not different, senator. There seems to be some misunderstanding that somehow I see the world through a different lens, and I do not."
If all 10 Democrats on the committee vote against Tillerson, and Rubio or any other Republican joins them, the nomination would then be referred to the full Senate with "no recommendation."
Black lawmakers said Wednesday that Sen. Jeff Sessions at times has shown hostility toward civil rights, making him unfit to be attorney general, as a 1986 letter from the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. surfaced, strongly expressing opposition to the Alabama senator.
In the second day of confirmation hearings, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Sessions' colleague, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was beaten when he marched for civil rights in the 1960s, warned that Sessions could move the country backward if confirmed as Trump's top law enforcement official.
Booker said the "arc of the universe does not just naturally curve toward justice — we must bend it," and the country needs an attorney general who is determined to bend it.
Lewis told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the country needs "someone who's going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people that need help, the people who have been discriminated against."
On Tuesday, the NAACP released a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, widow of the civil rights leader, in which she said that Sessions' actions as a federal prosecutor were "reprehensible" and that he used his office "in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters."
Not everyone on the panel criticized Sessions. Three men who had worked with Sessions in Alabama and Washington, all black, testified in support.
Jesse Seroyer, a former U.S. marshal for the Middle District of Alabama, said Sessions is a "good, honest person who is going to give all he has to make sure everyone is treated fairly under the law."
Sessions is expected to easily win confirmation.
Elaine Chao, a veteran Cabinet secretary who has served under two Republican presidents, on Wednesday offered remarkably few specifics but many promises of cooperation as she cruised through her confirmation hearing to become transportation secretary.
Democrats on the Senate panel charged with reviewing Chao's nomination made it clear that they have no objections to her, suggesting that she will be easily confirmed in a full Senate vote.
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.