For the last six weeks, much of the military conversation on Capitol Hill has surrounded the nomination of former Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to become the next Secretary of Defense.
This week, Mattis will get his turn to talk.
The confirmation hearing for the 66-year-old former head of U.S. Central Command is set for Thursday, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. It’s one of seven Cabinet nominee hearings scheduled for this week, including former Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly to run the Department of Homeland Security and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to become secretary of State.
Mattis’ hearing promises to be among the most followed of the high-profile hearings, and not just because of the significance of the top Pentagon job.
Mattis served 44 years in the Marine Corps before retiring in 2013, developing a cult-like following among some military members for his colorful quips and scholarly approach to defense planning.
But his nomination also conflicts with the National Security Act of 1947, which mandates seven years separation between military service and assuming the top civilian job in the Department of Defense.
On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing to discuss granting a waiver for Mattis, something that has only been done once before in the last 70 years. A pair of outside experts will discuss the history of the law and the concept of preserving the separation between military and civilian roles at the Pentagon.
Since the waiver will need to be approved under normal legislative rules, supporters will need at least eight Democrats in the Senate to total the 60 votes needed to advance the measure.
Already, several Democrats on Capitol Hill have said they won’t support an exception for Mattis, citing the importance of civilian control of the U.S. military. But many have said they will back the retired general, citing his experience and past frankness with lawmakers.
Mattis could calm some of the lingering concerns with his testimony on Thursday. In a meeting with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., last week, Mattis said he understood and respected the need for civilian control of the military.
He’s also expected to face tough questioning on his past comments about Iran, his views on military build-up and Trump’s campaign trail comments on a host of national security issues.
Both chambers are expected to act on the waiver in coming weeks, possibly before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. That could put a confirmation vote for Mattis in line for later this month, installing him as the head of the Pentagon within days of Trump taking office.
Both Mattis hearings will be streamed on the
Senate Armed Services Committee’s website.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.