White House faces time crunch with Trump's top Pentagon pick

White House faces time crunch with Trump's top Pentagon pick

The White House is racing against the clock to install a permanent Pentagon chief.

Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper, President TrumpDonald John TrumpSupreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration Trump is failing on trade policy Trump holds call with Netanyahu to discuss possible US-Israel defense treaty MORE’s pick for the top defense post, is not permitted to serve in his current role beyond July 30. That’s because a federal law known as the Vacancies Act prohibits officials from serving in acting capacities for more than 210 days.

Since the Pentagon has not had a permanent Defense secretary since James MattisJames Norman MattisUS could deploy 150 troops to Syria: report Trump blasts 'Mr. Tough Guy' Bolton: 'He made some very big mistakes' Congress needs to get its act together for defense funding MORE stepped down at the end of December — followed by Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanDefense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary MORE serving as acting chief from Jan. 1 until his June 23 departure — the administration now faces a tight deadline to get Esper confirmed.

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To complicate matters further, Esper is not allowed to serve as acting secretary while his nomination is under consideration in the Senate, meaning he will need to temporarily step aside during the confirmation process that also comes amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran. 

“You’re working with 2 1/2 weeks to work hearings and move stuff through the system,” Arnold Punaro, a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said of Esper’s timeline. 

The White House, which announced last month that Trump will nominate Esper, has yet to formally submit his nomination to the Senate, where it will be taken up by the Armed Services panel. 

The nomination is unlikely to come this week, as Congress is out of session for the July 4 holiday. Lawmakers are slated to return to Washington next week.

Punaro, a retired Marine Corps three-star general, pointed out that even if the Senate receives the nomination early next week, it already has its hands full with a July 11 confirmation hearing for Gen. Mark Milley, Trump’s pick to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

“There won’t be a time to do a hearing next week, so you’re looking at the next couple of weeks after that,” Punaro said.

That means the Senate has about 12 legislative days to hold Esper’s confirmation hearing, a committee vote and then a floor vote.

Combined with pressure to shore up the separate House and Senate versions of the annual defense authorization bill before the August recess, defense-focused lawmakers have a lot on their plates.

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But despite the limited window, congressional leaders are eager to have a permanent Pentagon head installed and will likely work quickly to move Esper’s nomination though the confirmation process. 

A spokesperson for the office of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said that while the panel has not received the official nomination, it “will act on it expeditiously” when they have it in hand.

Lawmakers argue that growing tensions with Iran and looming funding negotiations — where they will need to agree to raise statutory spending caps on defense funding — desperately warrant a Senate-confirmed official in place at the Pentagon.

"When you have the word 'acting' after your name, you’re not it. You’re perceived by other countries as not being the person in charge," Inhofe said late last month.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that “an acting secretary of Defense is not what we need.”

“We need a permanent secretary of Defense to help guide the department through budget negotiations and conflict,” he said.

Esper, who had been the Army secretary before being named acting Defense secretary, took over as Pentagon chief last week after Shanahan abruptly resigned and ended his bid to be the top defense official following news reports of years-old domestic violence incidents.

Shanahan had been acting Defense secretary since early January after Mattis resigned in protest over Trump’s since-reversed decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria. 

Under the Vacancies Act, Mattis’s departure started a countdown clock — acting chiefs cannot serve for more than 210 days.

The same statute says Esper can’t serve in an acting capacity while his nomination is under consideration, meaning he would have to step back down to Army secretary. And in keeping with the line of succession, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer would become acting Defense secretary in his place temporarily.

In yet another added wrinkle, the Senate is expected to wait seven days after receiving a nomination to hold a hearing on the nominee.

“You would hope that they would work a very tight timeline in terms of the amount of time from Esper’s actual nomination to the hearing to the confirmation vote in the Senate, so as to not have another acting for a long period of time,” Punaro said. 

To minimize the amount of time Esper has to step aside, Punaro predicted that the Senate will waive the seven-day rule, as has happened with former Defense secretaries Robert Gates — who served under former Presidents George W. Bush and Obama — and William Perry, who served during the Clinton administration.

That kind of quick turnaround would increase the odds that Esper is sworn in before July 30. 

“We did Bob Gates in three days, from nomination to hearing to confirmation,” Punaro said. “Bill Perry was done in under seven days.”