Mattis gets unique role in budget talks


When President Trump and lawmakers met last week at the White House to start talks aimed at averting a government shutdown, the table of negotiators included the usual suspects and one new addition: Defense Secretary James Mattis.

The former Marine Corps general’s presence was meant to “be an adult in the room” and impart the importance of lifting long-in-place defense spending caps as President Trump seeks a deal with congressional Democrats to fund the government next year. 

Mattis is perhaps the most respected figure in Trump’s Cabinet and was confirmed in an overwhelming 98-1 Senate vote. Trump seemed to be aiming at harnessing that political clout in the bargaining session.

{mosads}After Trump and the four leaders offered words to reporters, the president invited Mattis to speak, highlighting his presence.


“The No. 1 priority for our country is to make certain we protect this Constitution and our way of life,” Mattis said. “We’ve got great bipartisan support. I’m confident we’ll walk out of this with it.”

After the Oval Office talk, Mattis and the leaders moved to the White House Situation Room, where the Defense secretary gave an update on the military.

Mattis has carved out his own place in Trump’s Cabinet in his first year leading the Department of Defense (DOD), often signaling more independence than other members of the administration.

During Trump’s first Cabinet meeting at the White House, while the other Cabinet members began the meeting by praising Trump and thanking him for the opportunity to serve, Mattis instead said it was “an honor to represent the great men and women of the Department of Defense.”

One defense industry consultant said Mattis could have an impact on the budget talks, in which Republicans are seeking to add more for defense spending than nondefense spending.

Democrats, in contrast, are demanding equal hikes to defense and nondefense spending.

“Trump is rolling out a heavyweight general to support both a full-year defense bill at the president’s budget or higher,” the consultant said.

This doesn’t mean that Trump and Mattis will get their way.

The consultant said Democratic leaders know Trump is using Mattis “as a political pawn” in the fight over defense and nondefense spending.

Yet his presence could also have an impact in reminding leaders of the importance of not returning to stopgap spending measures that could lead to lower Pentagon spending, which a majority in Congress wants to avoid.

Congress approved a two-week funding measure on Thursday that will keep the government operating until Dec. 22. The idea is for the two sides to agree to top-line numbers for defense and nondefense spending in the next two weeks. Congress would then approve another short-term measure to prevent a shutdown, before returning in January to complete work on a longer measure that could last until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

The White House and congressional Republicans are more favorable to increasing defense spending than nondefense spending, but they will need Democratic votes in the Senate, and probably in the House, to approve a long-term spending measure. Democrats are also seeking action related to immigration and health care.

For Republican defense hawks, “Mattis is the right guy to carry the message about the damage of endless continuing resolutions,” the consultant said.

“In previous budget negotiations, the DOD leadership and the Defense Committee leadership have not been in the room,” said Arnold Punaro, a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But Todd Harrison, a budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said even though Mattis is in the discussion, “I don’t know that he is necessarily changing the outcome.”

“The real disagreement here is on the nondefense side of the budget. There’s not a lot that DOD can say that’s going to affect people’s views about that side of the budget,” he said.

Trump’s inclusion of Mattis also offered a picture of a more coordinated Pentagon and White House.

In the past, it’s been reported that Trump has caught Mattis by surprise with some of his actions, notably with the July announcement on Twitter that the U.S. military would ban transgender individuals from serving.

On Monday, the Pentagon seemed to shore up the image of an orderly administration by releasing a statement on its transgender policy hours after a federal judge ruled the Trump administration must accept transgender recruits into the military by Jan. 1.

The Pentagon in a statement said it would begin processing transgender recruits for military service on Jan. 1, while the Justice Department appeals the court orders.

Tags Defense spending Donald Trump James Mattis James Mattis

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