Congressional Republicans Put Dems in Bind over ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis
A new bill threatens to stifle debate over Trump’s pick to head the Pentagon, who needs a congressional green light to serve.
Congressional Republicans put Democrats on Capitol Hill in a tough spot late Tuesday, slipping language that would severely limit debate on President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for defense secretary into a critical spending bill. The measure would limit the amount of time Congress can debate issuing a waiver so that retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who left the Corps three years ago, can serve as civilian head of the Pentagon.
The bill, which would keep the government funded, thus dodging a Friday deadline to shut down federal agencies, is a must-pass measure that has been largely uncontroversial. It would fund government operations through March, when the Trump administration would then be able to influence spending.
Several Democratic lawmakers have opposed Mattis’s nomination on the grounds that it erodes the tradition of civilian control of the military. A retired officer must have left the military at least seven years before taking over at the Pentagon. Mattis retired from the Marine Corps in 2013.
Mattis will still have to go before the Senate Armed Services Committee for confirmation early next year, but the language in the continuing resolution limits the amount of time senators have to debate granting the waiver to 10 hours.
Senate Democrats are reportedly ready to support the stopgap spending bill, despite their opposition to streamlining Mattis’s confirmation, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a smooth confirmation. While Mattis is broadly popular on the Hill, a Republican Senate aide acknowledged that the 60-vote requirement for the exemption and for his confirmation will ensure a “hard fight.”
The move is aimed at limiting Democrats’ ability to tie up the Senate with procedural roadblocks, as Republican lawmakers in both houses prepare for a busy session approving new Trump nominees, attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and working on appropriations bills.
“A lot of us know Jim Mattis quite well. He is so revered. He is exception worthy to the waiver rule,” Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said during an interview on CNBC. “That will help make sure that they can move on that nomination fairly quickly — so they can’t gum it up with the filibuster.”
The most prominent voice to oppose granting a waiver for Mattis is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D.-NY), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Personnel. When the nomination was announced, Gillibrand issued a statement saying that while she respects Mattis’ military service and has no objections with him personally, “civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule.”
The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith of Washington, has also walked a fine line with the Mattis nod, heavily praising the former four-star officer while urging a careful review of the issues at stake.
Smith said earlier this month that “civilian control of the military is not something to be casually cast aside.” And Smith told Foreign Policy on Wednesday that he wanted to pursue a full review of the waiver, including hearings, something that the new bill would make more difficult.
“Now what I fear still is that the House leadership will simply pluck it out of committee and put it on the floor for a vote without allowing our committee to do its due process,” Smith said.
He added that “we need to have a robust discussion.”
Trump formally introduced Mattis as his nominee Tuesday night at a campaign-style rally in North Carolina. Mattis delivered a few lines to reassure service members concerned about being ordered to carry out illegal acts like torture — which then-candidate Trump promised to bring back — as well as NATO and other allies who are nervous Washington may turn away from its international commitments.
Mattis said he was grateful for the opportunity to work at the Pentagon in “the defense of our Constitution, and with our allies strengthened, and with our country strengthened, I look forward to being the civilian leader, as long as the Congress gives me the waiver, and the Senate votes to consent.” Back at the podium, Trump added, “Oh, if he doesn’t get that waiver there’ll be a lot of angry people. Such a popular choice.”
On Wednesday, the Trump transition team also nominated another retired Marine general, John Kelly, to run the Department of Homeland Security. The 66-year-old Kelly, who retired in January, would not need a waiver to run that agency. While head of U.S. Southern Command for his last four years prior to retirement, he called drug use and illegal immigration an “existential” threat to the United States.
He also expressed concerns over Hezbollah — a Lebanese terrorist group — smuggling drugs and possibly fighters into the United States over the southern border, calling it a “crime-terror convergence.”
Kelly served under Mattis during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when then-Maj. Gen. Mattis commanded the 1st Marine Division, and Kelly was his assistant division commander. The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joe Dunford, served under both as a regimental commander. Trump has named another recently retired general, Mike Flynn, who was pushed out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under the Obama administation, as his national security advisor.
Smith said he had known both Mattis and Kelly for years and held them in the highest regard, and that he hoped they would have a constructive influence on Trump and his advisors who he said have engaged in “belligerent” rhetoric.
Trump has picked some “spectacularly unqualfiied” nominees to fill his administration so far, Smith said, and Mattis and Kelly represented a break from that worrisome pattern. As a result, the Democrat said he was willing to overlook concerns about having up to three recently retired generals in top positions.
“If the president-elect somehow accidentally picks high quality, very intelligent people, I’m not going to let the fact that they’re generals get in the way of at least having somebody in the executive branch who knows what they’re doing.”
FP‘s Dan De Luce contributed to this article.
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