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Canceled hearing could complicate Mattis' confirmation

January 11, 2017 (Photo Credit: Lauren Victoria Burke/AP)
Defense secretary nominee James Mattis on Wednesday abruptly canceled a planned hearing before the House Armed Services Committee this week, potentially complicating his confirmation process.

Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to oversee the Pentagon, is scheduled to testify at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday morning. But he was also scheduled to head across Capitol Hill and talk to House members later in the day, an unusual but not unprecedented appearance before both chambers.

On Wednesday, officials from Trump’s transition team told committee staff Mattis would not attend the second hearing.

Trump transition spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said that Mattis' focus on Thursday is "following the Constitutional process for confirmation by the U.S. Senate and testifying at his confirmation hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee."

But she added that "if confirmed, he looks forward to working with both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, which play critical roles in supporting our forces and ensuring civilian control of the military." 

The cancellation complicates an already unusual nomination process for Mattis, a popular figure in military circles and on Capitol Hill.

Few lawmakers have questioned Mattis’ credentials to run the Defense Department. The 66-year-old veteran last served as the head of U.S. Central Command and left active duty in 2013 after reportedly falling from favor with President Barack Obama’s White House over disagreements about Iran.

But federal rules mandate a seven-year wait between leaving the service and taking over the nation's top civilian defense post. Unlike other nominees, Mattis needs a waiver approved by both the House and Senate before he can proceed to a confirmation vote.

Following the cancellation news, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Democrats in his chamber may oppose the waiver if Mattis doesn’t testify before their lawmakers to answer questions about his views on civilian control of the military.

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., has made similar statements in the past, noting the importance of the issue to the underpinnings of national security policy. He has also said Democrats may put aside their admiration and fight his confirmation if the Trump administration skips a substantive debate on the issues. 

"These are not typical circumstances," Smith said. "If you require a waiver, you testify before the House Armed Services Committee."

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the topic on Tuesday, where outside experts defended the rationale behind a seven-year wait but also offered an endorsement of a waiver for Mattis, given his unique background.

Those senators are expected to vote on waiver legislation as early as Thursday.

Republicans control both chambers of Congress and don’t need Democrats to advance the legislation in the House. But a large opposition vote in the House over procedural issues for a popular nominee could be a bothersome image for the new administration.

House leaders are still eyeing a possible vote on the issue this week, even without a Mattis appearance on their side of Capitol Hill. House Armed Services Committee members are expected to debate the waiver on Thursday afternoon, with or without Mattis' attendance. 

Mattis’ Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

Reporter Joe Gould contributed to this story.


   
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.
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