The Senate on Thursday quickly passed legislation allowing retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to serve as the next defense secretary, just hours after his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.
The move is the first of several congressional steps needed to get around federal rules that mandate a seven-year “cooling off” period between military service and assuming the top civilian defense job. Mattis retired in 2013 after a 44-year military career.
The House is expected to vote on the matter on Friday. If passed, it opens the way for a full Senate confirmation vote on Mattis as early as next week, putting him in charge of the Pentagon shortly after President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
The lopsided 81-17 Senate vote on the waiver issue covered over growing concern among some Democrats about issues of civilian control of the military. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and the most vocal opponent of the move, called the measure a “historic mistake” by the chamber.
“This has nothing to do with our particular nominee,” she said before the vote. “These principles exist for a reason, and it's enabled our country's success for decades and has kept our democracy safe.
“If we take this change in our laws so lightly as we are about to do today, when future Congresses look at this and want to make the same exception… it will be much easier to do.”
But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., called Mattis “an exceptional public servant worthy of exceptional consideration.”
Mattis was scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday after his Senate confirmation hearing, but Trump transition officials cancelled his appearance on Wednesday.
That move outraged Democrats on the House defense panel, who called the decision a power move by Trump designed to undermine lawmakers.
“What has happened is in a critically critically important matter, who is going to be the Secretary of Defense and (the issue of) civilian control of the military, the incoming president's team has decided that the House Armed Services Committee is irrelevant,” said committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “That’s not acceptable.”
Committee chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said Mattis told House leaders he was willing to testify, but that Trump officials made the decision. Thornberry also said despite his disappointment, he would still support the legislation.
The House committee forwarded the legislation to the full chamber Thursday afternoon, on a 34-28 part-line vote.
During his confirmation hearing, Mattis said he understood the difference between military and civilian responsibilities in government and promised to “provide strong civilian leadership of military plans and decisions.”
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.