Senate panel advances Pentagon chief, Joint Chiefs chairman nominees

Senate panel advances Pentagon chief, Joint Chiefs chairman nominees
© Greg Nash

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved Thursday the nomination of Army Secretary Mark Esper to become Defense secretary, committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeDemocrats, environmentalists blast Trump rollback of endangered species protections Bottom Line Overnight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador MORE (R-Okla.) told reporters after the vote.

In a closed-door session, the panel also approved Gen. Mark Milley to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Inhofe added.

Both nominations were approved by voice vote, with Milley’s as part of a batch of hundreds of other military nominations.

Though voice votes typically mean any opposition is not put into the record, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenAre Democrats turning Trump-like? Manufacturing shrinks, raising questions for Trump Volatile presidential polls spark new round of anxieties MORE (D-Mass.) asked to be recorded as opposing Esper, she told reporters.

Inhofe would not say if any other senators asked to be recorded as opposing Esper.

Senators now hope to quickly confirm Esper to lead the Pentagon. The post has been filled by an acting secretary since January after former Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOnly Donald Trump has a policy for Afghanistan New Pentagon report blames Trump troop withdrawal for ISIS surge in Iraq and Syria Mattis returns to board of General Dynamics MORE’s resignation in December, marking the longest ever period of the Pentagon having an acting secretary.

Later Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAre Democrats turning Trump-like? House Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' Churches are arming and training congregants in response to mass shootings: report MORE (R-Ky.) filed clotured on Esper's nomination, setting up a confirmation vote for early next week.

McConnell filing cloture on Esper came despite Warren, who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, telling reporters earlier she would object to an attempt to do so.

During Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, Warren and Esper clashed about his past as defense contractor Raytheon’s top lobbyist in the only heated exchange of the hearing.

Warren wanted Esper to commit to recusing himself from matters involving Raytheon for the duration of his Pentagon career, since the recusal agreement he signed in 2017 expires in November.

She also wanted him to commit to not seeking a waiver from his recusal and to not seek employment in the defense industry for four years after leaving the government.

Esper would not commit to any of her requests, but defended his integrity by citing his Army service.

Esper was spotted talking with senators, including committee ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenators ask for committee vote on 'red flag' bills after shootings Senate Democrats demand Trump order review of White House security clearances Overnight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador MORE (D-R.I.) and committee member Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingNew intel chief inherits host of challenges Senators ask for committee vote on 'red flag' bills after shootings Top Democrat: 'Disqualifying' if Trump intel pick padded his résumé MORE (I-Maine), in the Senate basement after Thursday’s vote. Esper declined to comment when asked about the committee approving his nomination.

Senators were also expected to discuss in Thursday’s meeting how to proceed regarding Gen. John Hyten, who has been nominated to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Hyten was accused by a female officer of sexual assault. An Air Force investigation cleared Hyten of the allegation, but several senators have questioned the Air Force’s handling of the investigation and expressed hesitation at moving forward with Hyten’s nomination.

Inhofe, along with several other senators approached by reporters after the meeting, would not comment on whether Hyten was discussed Thursday. 

Asked how the meeting went, Warren told reporters “not well,” adding that “it’s a difficult circumstance. It’s a personnel matter, and at this point, it’s still confidential.” But she declined to specify if she was referring to Hyten.

Updated at 2:32 p.m.