The nomination of Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis for defense secretary was greeted on both sides of the aisle with high praise of his distinguished military service and strategic expertise, but Democrats warned that his confirmation was in jeopardy over the credo of keeping civilian control of the Pentagon.
The need for Congress to grant a waiver to a law that requires at least seven years of separation from the military for anyone to become defense secretary — Gen. Mattis retired three years ago — makes it easier to derail his nomination, and it gives Democrats in both chambers a shot at defeating the general.
The added leverage of the waiver issue is magnified due to Senate Democrats in 2013 resorting to the “nuclear option,” changing the chamber’s rules to allow confirmation of President Obama’s appointments with a major vote rather than the previously required 60-vote supermajority.
The new rules all but guarantee the Republican-run Senate will confirm President-elect Donald Trump’s picks.
Military experts, however, said the civilian leadership argument was a “frivolous” reasons to block what otherwise has been lauded as a stellar nomination.
“I don’t see that as an issue unless we make it one — but truly it’s not an issue,” said retired Army Gen. Keith Brian Alexander, who attended the National War College with Gen. Mattis in 1993. “He is a superb leaders who understands what it is like to put military people at risk.”
“He will be a tremendous asset for President-elect Trump,” he said Sunday on Fox News. “He will give President-elect Trump good advice.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was out in front opposing the general and set the stage for a floor fight.
“While I deeply respect General Mattis’s service, I will oppose a waiver,” said the New York Democrat. “Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule.”
Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Arms Services Committee, demanded “a debate about our Constitutional principle of civilian control of the military and passing a new bill.”
The same case was being made among House Democrats.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat one the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Congress should “seriously consider” the waiver and then added a heavy dose of caution.
“We must also bear in mind the precedent we would be setting and the impact it would have on the principle of civilian leadership of our nation’s military,” said the California Democrat. “That concern would be further heightened should the President-elect nominate any further military personnel to high positions of civilian leadership in his Administration.”
Mr. Schiff’s warning appeared aimed at Presdient-elect Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state. Mr. Trump’s short list for the post includes retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and retired Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly.
Thomas Houlahan, director of the Military Assessment Program at Center for Security and Science, called the argument about civilian leadership “laughable.”
“What happens in the next four years that suddenly makes him a real civilian,” he said.
“This is what I would say to the people who are talking about blocking Mattis for this frivolous reason or that frivolous reason: You get the wrong [defense secretary], American soldiers die because of that stuff and I hope you are ready to accept that.”
The law requiring a lengthy break from the military before running the Pentagon was adopted in the 1940s and has been waived only once, for Army Gen. George Marshall in 1950, when the nominee needed a 10-years separation for the armed forces.
The law was changed to 7 years in 2008.
Mr. Houlahan was part of a chorus of military experts and former leaders from the armed forces who described Gen. Mattis as uniquely qualified to not only run the Pentagon but to also restore confidence in the U.S. military.
“My takeaway here is not that Mattis is a good appointment. Mattie is a necessary appointment,” he said. “The day to day job is going to be making certain that this nation has the fullest range of options for its defense that it can have. We haven’t had that. What we’ve had is civilian leaders who are entirely too willing to accept excuses from people on why certain capabilities are not available when they should be.”
“I think we are really going to benefit from a guy who knows what’s what,” he said.