Washington – Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy on Thursday voted against granting retired Marine Gen. James Mattis a waiver that would allow him to serve as President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of defense.
The Senate approved Mattis’ waiver on a 81-17 vote.
Earlier in the day, Blumenthal was one of only three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to vote against granting the waiver, which is needed because the law allows only those who have been retired from the military for at least seven years to serve as secretary of defense. Mattis has been retired for four years.
Twenty-four Republicans and Democrats voted for the waiver. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., were the other two who voted against it.
“You and I have discussed the issue of civilian control over the military, and I am extremely concerned by the precedent that you assuming this office would set,” Blumenthal told Mattis before the vote, held during a break in the general’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Blumenthal said he “would not elaborate on the reason” he opposed the waiver, but told Mattis, “If there were ever a case for a waiver…it is you.”
Meanwhile, there was a revolt by House Armed Service Committee Democrats against granting Mattis a waiver. Their opposition was based largely on the general’s failure to appear before the committee.
Most Democrats on the panel who opposed a waiver for Mattis, including Rep. Joe Courtney, praised his military record and character, but said the waiver legislation was poorly written and left open a possibility other candidates could benefit from the waiver if Mattis is not confirmed. They also said granting an exception to a decades-old law aimed at keeping the military under civilian control is a bad precedent.
“I want to make clear that our criticism is not aimed at General Mattis,” Courtney said. “I think he would be an incredibly effective secretary of defense.”
Despite Democratic opposition, the waiver bill was approved by the House Armed Services Committee on a 34-28 vote and is expected to be approved by the full House Friday.
Mattis supports Virginia-class subs, F-35
At his confirmation hearing, Mattis, 66, said he supported the U.S. military’s “nuclear triad,” of which the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine will be a key element. The new subs will be built largely by Electric Boat in Groton.
Under questioning by Blumenthal, Mattis said he “absolutely” supported the two-a-year pace of production of Virginia-class attack subs, also built by Electric Boat.
As far as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is concerned – an aircraft which has been criticized by Trump, sometimes in tweets, for its price and for the program’s many delays – Mattis said he and the president-elect are strong supporters of the Lockheed Martin plane, whose engines are built by Pratt & Whitney.
“The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is important to our strategic effort in the world and to our allies, including Israel,” Mattis said.
The U.S. Navy, Marines and Air Force will fly different versions of the F-35, but U.S. allies also are buying their own versions of the jet.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked Mattis if he would stop Trump from tweeting criticisms about the F-35 “because I don’t’ think that’s the best way to get the point across.”
“It’s not my role to comment on the president-elect’s statements, other than to say he’s serious about getting the best bang for the dollar,” Mattis said.
Hirono replied, “Using twitter is not the best way to do that.”
Mattis was asked by several Democratic senators whether he was willing to provide a counterweight to any military rush to judgment by Trump.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., asked if Mattis would have the “same [calm] temperament” as secretary of defense that he showed Thursday at his confirmation hearing, “despite his nickname,” which is “Mad Dog.”
“I assure you that nickname was given to me by the press,” Mattis said.
Blumenthal said he’s convinced Mattis would be a counterweight to Trump.
“I believe that your appreciation for the costs of war in blood, treasure and lives and the impact on veterans afterwards will enable you to be a check on rash and potentially ill-considered use of military force by a president-elect who perhaps lacks that same appreciation,” Blumenthal said.
Mattis also assured Blumenthal that as secretary of defense he would focus on post-traumatic stress disorder and on preventing veteran suicides.
“You have my full commitment on this,” Mattis said.
Under questioning by Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services panel, Mattis said the world is under its greatest threat since World War II because of provocations from Russia, terrorism and “with what China is doing in the South China Sea.”