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Congress to clear path for Mattis

Congress to clear path for Mattis
© Greg Nash

Congress appeared poised to wrap up the lame-duck session and head home for the holidays this week as controversy over President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE’s pick to head the Pentagon quickly fizzled.

Both the White House and top congressional Democrats signaled Wednesday that they would not block a government funding bill that includes language to ease the confirmation process for Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, Trump’s pick for Defense secretary.

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That means the stopgap spending bill needed to avert a government shutdown should easily clear the House on Thursday afternoon. It’s expected to pass the Senate before a Friday night deadline, despite some last-minute kinks to work out in the upper chamber.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDemocratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives  Susan Collins and the American legacy Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (D-W.Va.) has threatened to hold up the must-pass spending legislation unless Congress fixes problems with healthcare benefits and the pension system for retired coal miners.

The continuing resolution, or CR, would fund the government through April 28.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said “it seems odd” that GOP lawmakers would tuck the Mattis provision into a must-pass spending measure instead of having it “considered on its merits.”

But he said the next president “should be given significant latitude in assembling his team,” and he praised Mattis as “somebody who served this country with distinction.”

“In many instances, that courtesy was not extended to this president by Republicans in the Senate,” Earnest said, “but the president believes that is an important principle.”

Before Mattis can be confirmed, the retired four-star Marine general will need Congress to pass a waiver to a law that requires Defense secretaries to have been out of uniform for at least seven years.  The law is meant to maintain civilian control of the military.

Mattis, the former commander of Central Command, retired in 2013 after a four-decade career in the military. He met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Trump looms over Ernst's tough reelection fight in Iowa Democratic senator votes against advancing Amy Coney Barrett nomination while wearing RBG mask MORE (R-Ky.) in his Capitol Hill office on Wednesday afternoon.

Earlier this week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats warned Republicans against including the Mattis waiver in the CR.

But bipartisan negotiators reached a compromise. The CR language unveiled Tuesday night would not grant the waiver but rather establish an expedited process for considering it when lawmakers return in January.

“I don’t think that will be an obstacle” to the funding bill, Pelosi told reporters Wednesday. “Maybe for some.”

The language is meant to speed up the process of granting a waiver so that Mattis can be confirmed quickly after the presidential inauguration, as Defense secretaries typically are.

Under the language, the Senate Armed Services Committee would have five days to take up the waiver after it’s introduced or else it goes straight to the Senate floor.

Once on the Senate floor, debate would be limited to 10 hours.

The waiver would still need 60 votes to pass the Senate, a key concern of Democrats who worried the CR would lower the vote threshold.

Without the CR language, Democrats could use the Senate’s rules to delay Mattis’s confirmation, eat up valuable floor time and slow the Trump administration’s ambitious 100-day agenda.

The 1947 law setting the cooling-off period for Defense secretaries has been waived just once — for Gen. George Marshall in 1950 less than five years after his retirement from the Army.

It wasn’t just Democrats who had raised objections this week about tucking the Mattis waiver inside the CR.

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), the nation’s first female combat pilot, said that she and several of her Armed Services Committee colleagues were worried Congress was rushing through an important issue that needed much more rigorous debate and deliberation.

“It has nothing to do with General Mattis, a great American. It’s got to do with the law and precedent; we haven’t done this since 1950,” McSally told The Hill. “It’s got to have the thoughtful consideration of the meaning of the law, civilian control of the military, and when and why exceptions should be made.

“This is legislation that needs to be passed with some thoughtful deliberation.”

Prior to the release of the CR, House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) also had said he preferred to tackle the waiver after the new year.

The language that ended up in the bill appears to have satisfied his concerns.

“Chairman Thornberry believes the process should allow for deliberation and debate on a standalone bill,” Thornberry spokesman Claude Chafin said Wednesday. “This language does that.”

Likewise, Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithA long overdue discussion on Pentagon spending Overnight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Democratic House chairman trusts Pentagon won't follow 'unlawful orders' on election involvement MORE (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee who has cautioned against rushing the waiver process, said he was satisfied with the compromise.

“The House has already had two briefings on the issue and will have the chance for a committee and full House vote,” he said. “I am satisfied with that.”

With the smell of jet fumes in the air, other Democrats eager to flee Washington said they would not wage war over the Mattis issue.

“There’s not a CR that anybody ever voted for that they liked, not 100 percent,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). “But it’s not enough for me to vote no.”

Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthPelosi, Democrats unveil bills to rein in alleged White House abuses of power GOP, White House struggle to unite behind COVID-19 relief House seeks ways to honor John Lewis MORE (D-Ky.), the incoming ranking member of the Budget Committee, also predicted most Democrats would be fine with the Mattis language, particularly since it retains the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

“It’s not a fight worth fighting,” he said.

Jordan Fabian and Mike Lillis contributed.