U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's team has canceled an appearance before Congress by his nominee for defense secretary, retired General James Mattis, regarding a waiver he needs for the post, congressional officials said on Wednesday.
The U.S. House of Representatives had been due to hear Mattis testify on Thursday and he had agreed to appear. Mattis, who retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, is technically ineligible to be defense secretary since he has not been a civilian for at least seven years. That means Congress would need to grant a waiver, something it has not done since 1950.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said it was his understanding the Trump transition team had blocked Mattis from testifying. Congressional aides also confirmed that Mattis had agreed to testify but the appearance had been blocked.
The decision appeared to be part of an effort to keep the attention on Mattis' confirmation hearing in the Senate, which is scheduled for earlier on Thursday.
"This (waiver) is not a minor issue. This is a major issue affecting the principle of civilian control of the military, and Ranking Member (Representative Adam) Smith believes deeply that General Mattis should come speak with the members about it," said Barron Youngsmith, a spokesman for Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee.
A Trump transition team spokeswoman did not speak directly to the House hearing but said Mattis' current focus was on the Senate confirmation process and "testifying at his confirmation hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee."
"If confirmed he looks forward to working with both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, which play critical roles in supporting our forces and ensuring civilian control of the military," Alleigh Marre said in a statement.
Hoyer said Mattis might be the best of the nominees for top administration positions put forward by the Republican Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20.
Republicans control the Senate, so Mattis is expected to be confirmed if he receives the appropriate waiver. The Senate and House must both agree to exempt him from a law written when the Department of Defense was created to ensure that the U.S. military is under civilian command.
Senators expressed little opposition to Mattis' appointment at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on civilian control of the military on Tuesday, as the panel considered whether to issue the waiver. Outside experts testified.
Senator John McCain, the Senate panel's chairman, said he would "fully support" the waiver legislation, which is expected to pass Congress.
Mattis, 66, has been warmly received by senior defense figures among both Republicans and Democrats, who believe he will adhere to core alliances and principles, even ones challenged by Trump during his election campaign.
|© REUTERS/Joshua Roberts. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Defense James Mattis meets with Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) on Capitol Hill in Washington.|
House Democrats fuming over Mattis canceling hearing
House Democrats are fuming after Ret. Gen. James Mattis abruptly canceled his appearance before the House Armed Services Committee slated for Thursday. The move is triggering a backlash from top House Democrats who say without hearing directly from Mattis they will oppose legislation paving the way for his confirmation.
"The Republicans have been spending eight years complaining about the executive branch usurping legislative branch power and here's their first move from the new administration is to ignore us on something," Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, the top Democrat on the panel told reporters Wednesday.
Smith added, "This is a law. We have to pass it and we want to hear from him and if we don't we are going to vote no."
Current law prohibits anyone who has served in the military in the last seven years to have a top leadership position in the Pentagon. That means Congress needs to pass a law that provides an exception for Mattis, who retired three years ago, to serve as defense secretary before the Senate votes on his confirmation.
Smith told reporters that Trump transition officials made the decision to pull Mattis from the House hearing Wednesday. Mattis did initially agree to House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry's request to appear and answer questions from members about taking a job typically held by civilians.
"General Mattis' current focus is on following the constitutional process for confirmation by the United States Senate and testifying at his confirmation hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, if confirmed he looks forward to working with both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, which play critical roles in supporting our forces and ensuring civilian control of the military," said Alleigh Marre, a Trump transition spokeswoman.
House Republican leaders scheduled a vote for Friday on a bill to provide Mattis with a waiver, and even with potentially large numbers of Democratic defections GOP aides say they are confident the measure will pass.
Thornberry is expected to support the bill, according to an aide, despite the dust-up on the hearing.
Mattis already had a busy day slated for Thursday, when he will testify at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. That panel is also expected to approve the Mattis waiver bill later in the day.
Since he was tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to lead the Pentagon Mattis has received bipartisan praise for his military career. While some have expressed concerns about setting aside the precedent of maintaining civilian leadership in the military, it's expected that the waiver legislation will be approved by both chambers and Mattis will be confirmed as one of the first Cabinet members. Senate leaders are aiming to have his confirmation vote on Inauguration Day, January 20.
Retired Gen. James Mattis cancels appearance before House Armed Services Committee
Retired Marine Corps Gen. James. Mattis canceled a Thursday appearance before the House Armed Services Committee that is considering a waiver required for him to serve as defense secretary.
That testimony was expected to be part of a busy Thursday for the native Washingtonian who also is scheduled to appear Thursday morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The waiver would exempt Mattis, who left the Marines in 2013, from a law that requires a defense secretary be at least seven years removed from military service. The House committee is scheduled to debate and markup the waiver Thursday.
Committee members had expected to be able to question Mattis before the vote.
But the Trump transition team informed Mattis he should not attend the House hearing but focus on the Senate confirmation process, according to the Military Times
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, believes that Mattis’ failure to appear before the committee circumvents the legislative process. So, Smith, the ranking Democrat on the committee, does not plan to vote in favor of the waiver, according to a spokesman for the Democrats on the Committee.