National Guard proponents say votes secured to add general to Joint Chiefs

National Guard proponents on and off Capitol Hill are increasingly confident the nation’s top citizen-soldier might soon have a seat on the powerful Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Guard advocates who are busily counting votes tell The Hill there now appears to be ample support in the Senate that could clear the way for the Guard chief’s elevation.

The Pentagon on Thursday sent the six sitting Joint Staff members to Capitol Hill to tell the Senate Armed Services Committee why lawmakers should kill legislation that would elevate the Guard chief to the elite body.

The Joint Staff’s chairman and vice chairman and its other members — the four military service chiefs — argued the move would create legal, operational and budgetary problems. The Guard boss already sits in on Joint Staff meetings, they said.

Essentially, the Pentagon does not think there is a problem that needs correcting, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told the committee.

National Guard Chief Gen. Craig McKinley broke with his four-star general brethren, lobbying in favor of the plan.

The Guard needs an official member of the Joint Chiefs to look out for its “best interests,” he said.

McKinley now sits in on all Joint Staff meetings at the chairman’s invitation.

The Guard chief needs to have the weight of law behind him as he advises the chairman - who takes military advice to the Defense secretary and president - on difficult operational and budgetary decisions that affect the Guard and its members, McKinley said.

Retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, said he believes “those who oppose the proposal may have learned a thing or two from Gen. McKinley."

During the three-hour hearing, "he did a great job of articulating that the access he enjoys today is based on personal relationships and not the law,” Hargett said in a statement prepared for The Hill. “And even the best personal relationships won't always guarantee access. He wasn't consulted on Guard response capabilities before Hurricane Irene, and that information probably surprised the committee.”

"I doubt the hearing changed any minds,” Hargett said, “but it may have opened a few."

The hearing came ahead of the upper chamber taking up the 2012 defense authorization bill. Senior senators say that legislation could hit the chamber’s floor before Thanksgiving.

When it does, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinSen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats The Hill's 12:30 Report Congress needs bipartisanship to fully investigate Russian influence MORE (D-Mich.) expects the chamber will vote on elevating the Guard chief.

Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyCongress should build on the momentum from spending bill Overnight Tech: Zuckerberg grilled by lawmakers over data scandal | What we learned from marathon hearing | Facebook hit with class action lawsuit | Twitter endorses political ad disclosure bill | Uber buys bike share Overnight Cybersecurity: Zuckerberg faces grilling in marathon hearing | What we learned from Facebook chief | Dems press Ryan to help get Russia hacking records | Top Trump security adviser resigning MORE (D-Vt.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination Senate panel moving ahead with Mueller bill despite McConnell opposition Overnight Defense: Lawmakers worry over Syria strategy | Trump's base critical of strikes | Flake undecided on Pompeo | Coast Guard plans to keep allowing transgender members | GOP chair wants to cut B from Pentagon agencies MORE (R-S.C.), co-chairs of the National Guard Caucus, have introduced legislation that would make the Guard chief a permanent Joint Staff member.

Levin expects that legislation could be condensed into an amendment to the Pentagon authorization bill.

Guard advocates on Friday indicated they think they have the votes in the Senate to pass such an amendment.

They pointed to a statement Leahy released Thursday indicating the Leahy-Graham bill had picked up a 67th co-sponsor.

Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeDems give muted praise to Pompeo-Kim meeting Overnight Energy: Former Pruitt aide alleges more wasteful spending, retaliation | Senate confirms EPA No. 2 | Zinke backs off big park fee increases Senate approves Trump’s pick for No. 2 at EPA MORE (R-Oak.) said during the hearing he was undecided on the matter, but he later announced his support.

“Since 9/11, our National Guard troops have dramatically changed from a strategic reserve force to an operational reserve force, being repeatedly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Inhofe said in a statement released after the hearing. “Adding the National Guard to the [Joint Staff] will provide our commander-in-chief with additional military advice from a unique perspective.”

One source said the plan could get nearly 70 votes.

“Two other senators have pledged to support the proposal when it becomes an amendment to the 2012 defense authorization bill,” the source said in an email. “Basic math: 69 supporters.”

The House already approved the move when it passed its version of the Pentagon policy bill.

It is unclear where the Obama administration stands on the issue, and President Obama will eventually have to sign the defense bill into law.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama promised to elevate the Guard boss.

But when asked where he stands on the matter, Obama’s defense secretary, Leon Panetta, told reporters he is opposed.

“I stand with this guy,” Panetta quipped during a Pentagon news briefing, pointing to Dempsey.

“I think the chairman and the Joint Chiefs have indicated that” the Guard chief “is at the table,” Panetta said. “But at the same time, that person really doesn't have a budget, doesn't really have ... the kind of authorities that the service chiefs have. ... In terms of being a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that's something that I think ought to be reserved for those that have, you know, direct command and direct budgets that deal with our military.”

In a May 24 statement of administration policy on the House authorization measure, the White House raised concerns about several of its provisions — but the Guard chief plan did not make that list.

Notably, however, Panetta was still CIA director when those complaints were compiled.