Senate Democrats are divided over how to handle the nomination of retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to take over the Department of Defense, with a critical waiver vote quickly approaching on the legislative calendar.
President-elect Donald Trump named Mattis, a 66-year-old popular general known for colorful quotes and a scholarly approach to military conflict, as his pick for the next defense secretary in early December.
But his 44-year Marine Corps career ended in 2013, meaning he'll need a waiver from Congress to get around rules mandating a seven-year wait between military service and taking over the top Pentagon job.
Republicans have signaled no qualms about granting that exception, but Democrats have voiced concerns about undermining safeguards designed to reinforce the concept of civilian control of the military.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was not aware of any looming problems with Mattis' confirmation, "but you never know."
His committee plans a hearing Jan. 10 on civil-military relations to encompass concerns about the waiver, with testimony from Eliot Cohen, of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and Kathleen Hicks, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mattis' confirmation hearing is set for two days later, on Jan. 12.
McCain hinted that for him, the hearing on the waiver issues is just a formality.
"I'm not going to ask anything," he said. "We're going to move forward with legislation to give him a waiver."
But several Democrats are likely to try and slow the process, until their concerns are answered.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said shortly after Mattis’ nomination that she would not support an exception for the popular general, even though she respected his service and experience. On Wednesday, she met with him on Capitol Hill to discuss her concerns and other defense issues.
"I still believe that civilian control of the military is fundamental to our democracy," she said. "And I believe that should not be changed."
Gillibrand said that Mattis "told me he believes in civilian control of the military, too," but that wasn’t enough to override her objections.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., herself an Army veteran who served in Iraq, has also raised concerns about a waiver and demanded lawmakers engage in a "thorough discussion" of the issue.
"I haven't made a decision, and we have not had any discussions whatsoever. That's a problem," she said. "We are closing the gap between someone leaves the military and when they are joining civilian government, and there needs to be a separation between the military and the civilian leadership of this country."
It’s unclear how many Senate Democrats will vote against the waiver when it comes before the chamber for a full vote.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Wednesday she is still undecided, and suggested more broadly that the GOP was rushing nominations without providing information about potential conflicts of interest.
"I'm not going to make any decision until the confirmation hearing," she said of Mattis. "I think a case does need to be made.
"The secretary of defense job, I have a lot of questions about contracting, I've got a lot of question about (overseas war spending), about budgets."
But fellow committee member Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he sees no problem with the Mattis waiver because "he is so well respected."
The waiver legislation will need 60 votes in the Senate to pass, meaning Democrats could block Mattis’ nomination if they all vote together on the issue.
It will also need to pass the House, where Democrats have less power to slow or sideline the measure. The House Armed Services Committee is expected to take up the issue as early as next week, but Republicans control enough seats in that chamber to easily bypass their concerns. Follow @LeoShaneLeo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ReporterJoe
Joe Gould covers Congress and the defense industry for Defense News. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.