Mattis waiver tied up in government shutdown fight

The U.S. Capitol, before dawn on Oct. 30, 2016.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 9, 2016

WASHINGTON – A last-minute budget showdown between Democrats and Republicans on Friday tripped up an effort to speed up Gen. James Mattis’ consideration as defense secretary.

The partisan fight over a four-month spending bill threatened to briefly shut down the government but it appeared unlikely to derail an included measure for Mattis, who needs a special waiver from Congress to be nominated because he has been retired from the Marines for less than seven years.

The measure would limit Senate debate over the Mattis waiver when Congress reconvenes next month, allowing Republicans to sidestep delaying tactics by Democrats in that chamber. President-elect Donald Trump announced earlier this month he will nominate the retired general to lead the Pentagon.

The overall $1.07 trillion budget bill would keep military and government funding on autopilot through April and avert a shutdown at midnight Friday when the current stop-gap spending measure expires. But Democrats were threatening to delay passage until Sunday over health benefits for coal miners.

“Nobody wants to close this great institution, this government, down, nobody wants to, but you have got to stand for something or surely to God you’ll stand for nothing,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., said Thursday.

The health benefits for miners in West Virginia and elsewhere is set to expire at the end of the month. The spending bill, which was passed Thursday by the House, provides a four-month extension but Manchin and other Democrats want the miners to receive another full year of coverage.

The Democrats could delay a final Senate vote on the bill until Sunday at the latest – more than a day after current legislation to fund the government runs out.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said he has retired coal miners in his state and had hoped for a longer extension of the benefits, but that Democrats should vote “yes” and revisit the issue next year.

“My request to the House was to fund [miner health benefits] for a full year but we will be back at it in April and are not likely to take it away,” McConnell said Friday.

The spending bill is must-pass legislation and House lawmakers had already left Washington, so eventual passage was almost certain.

The included Mattis legislation could speed up the general’s confirmation process.

Law requires any defense secretary nominee to be out of active-duty service for at least seven years and was designed to maintain civilian control of the military, though past defense secretaries such as Chuck Hagel had prior service experience.

Mattis, 66, retired from the Marine Corps in 2013 after leading U.S. Central Command.

The changes proposed by Republicans in the spending bill speed up a three-year waiver for Mattis through the Senate Armed Services Committee and caps debate on the Senate floor to 10 hours.

The waiver bill would also have to be passed by the House.

If the waiver becomes law, the Senate could then hold a committee nomination hearing and a floor vote to confirm Mattis, who has broad public support. Trump’s announcement drew new unanimous cheers from the military community, especially the Marines.

The general spent more than four decades in the Marine Corps and has infantry leadership experience that includes leading troops during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has cultivated a reputation as a warrior monk for his thoughtful leadership and colorful comments.

But the Republican move to fast-track a waiver riled Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who said they are concerned about violating the principle of civilian control of the military.

Duckworth, a wounded war veteran who won election to the Senate in November, called it “dangerous procedural gamesmanship” that could undermine the military.

“The American people deserve a transparent and thorough debate on the merits of eroding civilian leadership of the strongest military this world has ever known,” Duckworth said Thursday in a released statement. “Needlessly expediting this process abdicates Congress’ responsibility to fully and fairly consider the importance of the military’s subservience to civilians.”

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten