Lawmakers Vote to Allow
Mattis to Lead Pentagon

House, Senate pass waiver bill paving way for retired Marine general's confirmation

James Mattis
James Mattis / AP
January 13, 2017

Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress have voted to pass legislation allowing retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to serve as secretary of defense in the administration of Donald Trump.

The House took up the Senate version of the bill on Friday, voting 268-151 to create an exception allowing Mattis to lead the Pentagon. The Senate overwhelmingly passed the legislation in a bipartisan 81-17 vote on Thursday, clearing a 60-vote threshold.

The legislation now heads to the White House for signature.

Military personnel are required by law to be separated from the armed forces for at least seven years in order to serve as secretary of defense; Mattis has been out of uniform for three years. Congress has only once before created an exemption to the law, voting for a waiver to allow Gen. George Marshall to lead the Defense Department in the 1950s.

Republicans and many Democrats have embraced Mattis as a formidable choice for secretary of defense, though some have expressed concerns about the implications that Mattis' appointment might have on the constitutional principle of civilian control of the military.

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services on Thursday, Mattis outlined his priorities should he be confirmed as defense secretary, pledging to "strengthen military readiness, strengthen our alliances, and bring business reforms to the Department of Defense." The retired four-star general also assured lawmakers that he would exercise "strong civilian leadership" of the Defense Department.

"Civilian control of the military is a fundamental tenet of the American military tradition," Mattis said. "If the Senate consents and if the full Congress passes an exception to the seven-year requirement, I will provide strong civilian leadership of military plans and decisions and the Department of Defense."

Mattis, who President-elect Trump formally announced as his pick for defense secretary in December, served 41 years in the Marine Corps and most recently led the U.S. Central Command between 2010 and 2013.

A pair of defense experts on Tuesday recommended that lawmakers pass legislation to allow Mattis to serve as defense secretary, citing his judgement, character, and understanding of civilian-military relations in testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services.

Only three members of the Senate committee—Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.)—voted against the legislation when the panel considered it immediately following Mattis' confirmation hearing on Thursday. Some Democratic members on the House Committee on Armed Services also signaled they would oppose the bill at a meeting Thursday afternoon because the Trump transition team blocked Mattis from testifying before the members the same day.

The vote on the legislation, which took place one week before President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration, paves the way for Mattis' confirmation.