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Mattis could be defense secretary as early as Inauguration Day

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis could be the 26th Secretary of Defense within hours of President-elect Donald Trump taking office, the result of legislative rules pushed by Republican lawmakers as the congressional session came to close.

Many Democrats aren't happy about it, though. Several had complained that procedural moves forced into a must-pass budget extension were unnecessary and potentially harmful to the Mattis' nomination. But only a few voted against the measure, and now the unusual confirmation procedure is set to help speed Mattis into the job.

At issue is 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. The idea is to preserve the separation between military and civilian roles at the Pentagon, and reinforce civilian control of the U.S. armed forces.

Mattis ended his 44-year military career in early 2013 as the head of U.S. Central Command. His separation falls three years short of the required wait time. Numerous lawmakers said they would support a waiver early in the next session, but Republican leaders targeted the budget extension to ensure Democrats could not interfere or stall the process.

Trump selects Mattis as defense secretary

Under the new rules, both the House and Senate will still have to vote on approving the waiver, an outcome that most assume will produce easy margins in Mattis’ favor due to Republican control of both chambers.

To avoid delays, Republicans allowed either the Senate majority leader or the Senate Armed Services chairman to submit waiver legislation within the first 30 days of the new Congress, with guarantees that could put it to a full Senate vote within a week.

Mattis would still need to appear before the committee and answer questions about his past experience and his understanding of the difference between military and civilian leadership.

But GOP leaders have said they’re anxious to get Trump’s Cabinet officials approved as quickly as possible, and they see these new rules as simplifying that process for his unique case. A final vote on his appointment could come as early as Inauguration Day.

Democrats see it as an attempt to limit debate on the issue.

"Every part of my being as a former military officer says what [Congress is] doing now is wrong," said Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., shortly before voting against the budget bill.

She called the civilian-control issue a fundamental underpinning of American democracy. Quickly brushing by such discussion is a disservice to the American public, Duckworth said.

Other Democrats, including Marine Corps veteran Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have said they will oppose Mattis’ nomination on those grounds.

It’s unclear if the tight timeline laid out in the legislation will prevent House leaders from holding a hearing on the waiver issue, or how much floor debate the House will have.

Under the new rules, Senate debate will be limited to 10 hours, much shorter than the timeline for most pieces of legislation.

Duckworth, who is headed to the Senate next year, said she also is concerned that an expiring Congress set debate rules for a new legislative session. And she said that Mattis’ popularity among lawmakers makes the Republicans’ moves look defensive and suspicious, when his confirmation should be largely noncontroversial.

The National Security Act rules don’t apply to other Cabinet posts like the head of the Department Homeland Security and national security adviser, two jobs for which Trump also has tapped recently retired military brass: Marne Corps Gen. John Kelly and Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, respectively.

During an appearance at a post-election rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on Dec. 6, Mattis called his nomination an honor, saying he is "grateful for the opportunity to return to our troops, their families, the civilians at the Department of Defense, because I know how committed they are and devoted they are to the defense of our country."

He also said he looks forward to "being a civilian leader" for the new administration.

Trump responded by saying he was confident Congress would finalize the waiver legislation quickly.

"Oh, if he didn't get that waiver, there would be a lot of angry people," he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

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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