Senate leaders are hoping to vote on Mark Esper’s nomination to become the next defense secretary as early as this Thursday, but likely will have to wait until next week instead.
The extra wait would add just a few days to the nearly 200 days the Pentagon has gone without a permanent top leader this year, by far the longest absence in the history of the department.
Senate Republicans have moved quickly on Esper’s nomination in recent days, scheduling his confirmation hearing for just hours after his official paperwork arrived on Capitol Hill and pushing for a final chamber vote just 48 hours after that questioning.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said the moves were made with “a sense of urgency” about the Pentagon leadership vacancy.
The country, he argued, needs “a strong secretary of defense who enjoys the trust and confidence of the president and who has the support of those entrusted with critical civilian leadership positions in the Department of Defense, more than a dozen of which still need to be filled.”
But skipping ahead to a vote this week would require cooperation from all of the other senators in the chamber to waive parliamentary rules. That seemed unlikely after Tuesday’s hearing.
Esper, who has served as Army secretary since November 2017, enjoys broad support among Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. He faced few tough questions during his confirmation hearing, save for a heated exchange over his defense industry ties with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
She said his nomination “smacks of corruption, plain and simple” after he declined to agree to recusing himself from all matters related to the defense firm Raytheon, for whom he worked as a lobbyist for six years.
Warren, among the top presidential candidates in the Democratic primary race, was gaveled down by Inhofe as she pressed Esper over what she called a lack of ethical behavior. “He is not willing to make a commitment that he will not engage in conflicts of interest for which he was a lobbyist,” she shouted. “This is outrageous.”
Warren’s objections — views that have also been hinted at by several other Democratic senators — likely won’t be enough to stop Esper’s eventual confirmation, but would be enough to slow the voting process down for a few days.
Earlier in the day, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., said that he hoped Esper’s confirmation process would move ahead “as expeditiously as possible” but also emphasized the final decision was not a forgone conclusion.
Esper was confirmed 89-6 by the Senate to the Army secretary job almost two years ago.
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.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.