McCain threatens to block nominees over Army waiver report

McCain threatens to block nominees over Army waiver report
© Camille Fine

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.) is again threatening to hold up Pentagon nominees, this time over a news report about the Army granting mental health waivers to recruits.

At issue is a USA Today report that said the Army has lifted a ban on issuing waivers for recruits with a history of self-harm, bipolar disorder, depression or drug and alcohol abuse.

McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his committee was not notified of the policy change prior to the article, an issue the senator has railed against for months.

“It's a problem that, frankly, that this committee is having with the administration,” McCain said during a hearing Tuesday. “We should've been told about this before it showed up in a USA Today article. The Army did not respond to a question of how many waivers, if any, have been issued since the policy was changed.”

McCain was speaking at the confirmation hearing for Anthony Kurta to be principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, James McPherson to be Army general counsel and Gregory Maggs to be a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

Earlier this year, McCain refused to hold hearings for Pentagon nominees as he sought to force the administration to answer his questions on strategies for Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. McCain also wanted more information about the attack in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers.

Last month, after a meeting with Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital | Mattis, Tillerson reportedly opposed move | Pentagon admits 2,000 US troops are in Syria | Trump calls on Saudis to 'immediately' lift Yemen blockade Trump has yet to name ambassadors to key nations in Mideast Mattis, Tillerson warned Trump of security concerns in Israel embassy move MORE and a classified committee briefing on the Niger attack, McCain said he was pleased with the progress the Pentagon was making in keeping the committee informed and said he would lift some of the holds.

Since then, the Armed Services Committee has held hearings for 15 nominees.

But on Tuesday, McCain again raised the threat of blocking nominees.

The Army on Monday downplayed any changes. In a statement, Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, deputy chief of staff for Army personnel, said that before waivers could be granted by the Department of Army headquarters. Now, after a "simple, administrative change,” he said, waivers can be approved by U.S. Army Recruiting Command or by the state adjutant general for the National Guard.

If the committee does not get answers on the issue, McCain said, “we stop confirming people for jobs.”

“Self-mutilation is something that comes home to roost,” he said. “Someone who self-mutilates, I don’t understand the eligibility there. So I hope that we can get answers to the questions and I'm just not sure that if you take someone in who is doing these things, the cost over time is very, very, very high.”

McPherson, the Army general counsel nominee, promised that if he’s confirmed, he’ll make the waiver issue “one of his earliest questions.”

“If confirmed, I commit to communicating with this committee and the staff in way that perhaps you’ve never enjoyed before,” he said.

Despite McCain’s threat, the Armed Services Committee advanced four more nominees Tuesday. The committee by voice vote approved Robert McMahon to be assistant secretary of Defense for logistics and materiel readiness; R.D. James to be assistant secretary of the Army for civil works; Bruce Jette to be assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology; and Shon Manasco to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs.

McMahon, James, Jette and Manasco now move to the full Senate for final approval.