Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis testifies at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in September, 2014.

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis testifies at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in September, 2014. (Rick Vasquez/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress were warning Republicans against trying to pass a fast-track waiver this week that would allow Gen. James Mattis to be considered for defense secretary.

Republicans were weighing whether to add the waiver, which is needed because Mattis has been retired less than the seven years required by law, or other measures to streamline his nomination into a federal funding bill that must be passed by Friday. Mattis would still need to be confirmed by the Senate even with a legal waiver.

Mattis, who retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, has a sterling reputation among Capitol Hill lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle. But Democrats were concerned about sidestepping the seven-year law meant to keep the Defense Department in civilian hands and said they wanted a debate.

“Brushing aside the law that enshrines civilian control of the military – without discussion, in a massive must-pass funding bill – would set a terrible precedent,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a released statement. “It is troubling that Republicans are working so hard to shield President-elect [Donald] Trump’s choice for Secretary of Defense from the scrutiny and debate of Congress and the American people.”

The funding bill is a stop-gap measure to keep the federal government running through March and was being hammered out Tuesday afternoon behind closed doors. The current stop-gap budget measure will expire Friday and the government could grind to a halt without new legislation.

It was unclear what tack Republicans might take with any Mattis language in the budget bill. They had been kicking around the idea of a full waiver that would allow the retired general to proceed to nomination hearings next year after Trump takes office or other legislation that could streamline the waiver process, which now will likely require debate and votes in the House and Senate.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that he wants to hold off and have those congressional hearings next year.

“Surely, at the very least, it is worth having bipartisan hearings and debate before taking any action that could unintentionally disrupt the long-established principle of civilian control of the military,” he said.

A law requiring a 10-year gap between military service and defense secretary was passed in 1947 and Congress amended it to seven years in 2008. Gen. George C. Marshall was the only officer to ever receive a waiver and he served as defense secretary in the early 1950s.

Mattis, 66, spent over four decades in the Marine Corps and has infantry leadership experience that includes leading troops during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His nomination raised widespread cheers among the military community, particularly Marines, where is regarded as a strong, thoughtful leader known for colorful statements, such as PowerPoint presentations make the military “stupid.”

“His integrity is unshakable and unquestionable, and he has earned his knowledge and experience the old-fashioned way -- in the crucible of our nation’s defense and the service of heroes,” McCain said last week when Trump picked Mattis. Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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