House passes Mattis waiver, setting up quick confirmation

House passes Mattis waiver, setting up quick confirmation
© Getty Images

The House on Friday passed a waiver that will let retired Gen. James Mattis serve as Defense secretary, clearing the path for his confirmation despite a swift rise in Democratic opposition this week.

The House voted 268-151 on the waiver. Thirty-six Democrats voted in favor of the waiver, while one Republican, Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashRand Paul ramps up his alliance with Trump Ethics watchdog requests probe into Trump officials traveling to campaign events Kavanaugh’s views on privacy, Fourth Amendment should make Republicans think twice MORE (Mich.), voted against it.

 The Senate on Thursday voted 81-17 to pass the waiver.

The White House said President Obama will sign the bill if Congress passes it before he leaves office. "I think you can anticipate that if it did make it to the president’s desk that he will sign it," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at a briefing Friday.


Mattis needs a waiver because of a law that says Defense secretaries must be out of uniform for at least seven years, a measure intended to preserve civilian control of the military. Mattis retired in 2013.

Prior to this week, little opposition existed in either party to the waiver. But President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE's transition team did not allow Mattis to testify before the House Armed Services Committee after Mattis himself had told the leaders of the committee he would.

The cancellation angered House Democrats, who refused to vote for the waiver without Mattis’s testimony.

Democrats argued that voting for the wavier without Mattis’s testimony is setting a precedent for Trump to treat Congress as irrelevant.

“Here we are, before this president is even in office, at the very first opportunity, he is choosing to completely ignore us for no reason,” said Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Mattis dismisses talk he may be leaving | Polish president floats 'Fort Trump' | Dem bill would ban low-yield nukes Dems introduce bill to ban low-yield nukes Dems seek ways to block Trump support for Saudi-led coalition in Yemen MORE (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

“No good reason. You cannot tell me Gen. Mattis could not handle an hour and half’s worth of questioning in the House Armed Services Committee. He’s done it before, countless times.”

Democrats are also concerned the waiver does not exempt Mattis from the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which retired officers are subject to for life. As such, Mattis could theoretically be court-martialed by Trump.

“When you’re taking about civilian control of the military, if you have a retired military officer who is still subject to military law, that without question blurs the line between him being the military officer and him being a civilian,” Smith said.

The only time the law has been waived, for George Marshall in 1950, the waiver exempted Marshall from the military code.

Republicans, too, were unhappy at the canceled hearing, but said the waiver needed to be passed so that Mattis can be confirmed soon after Trump enters office and formally nominates him.

“There are legitimate complaints about the president-elect’s transition team refusing to allow Gen. Mattis to come to a hearing and testify before the House,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). “I share all of those concerns. I think it was a mistake and shortsighted.”

But, Thornberry said, “we have a responsibility to the men and women who serve and I think we have a responsibility for the safety and security of every American to see that there is a fully functional secretary of Defense on day one of the new administration.”

Updated at 4:19 p.m.