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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 InhofeSenate GOP signals it's likely to acquit Trump for second time Overnight Defense: Austin takes helm at Pentagon | COVID-19 briefing part of Day 1 agenda | Outrage over images of National Guard troops in parking garage Senate confirms Austin to lead Pentagon under Biden 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.

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Though voice votes typically mean any opposition is not put into the record, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden argues for legislative patience, urgent action amid crisis Financial firms brace for Biden's consumer agency chief Tim Ryan says he's 'looking seriously' at running for Portman's Senate seat 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 MattisOvernight Defense: Austin takes helm at Pentagon | COVID-19 briefing part of Day 1 agenda | Outrage over images of National Guard troops in parking garage Senate confirms Austin to lead Pentagon under Biden Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 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 McConnellHumanist Report host criticizes 'conservative Democrats:' They 'hold more power' than progressives Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' Biden's Cabinet gradually confirmed by Senate 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.

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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 ReedJack ReedOvernight Defense: Biden lifts Trump's transgender military ban | Democrats, advocates celebrate end of ban | 5,000 guardsmen staying in DC through mid-March Overnight Defense: Austin takes helm at Pentagon | COVID-19 briefing part of Day 1 agenda | Outrage over images of National Guard troops in parking garage Senate confirms Austin to lead Pentagon under Biden MORE (D-R.I.) and committee member Sen. Angus KingAngus KingBiden's bipartisan push hits wall on COVID-19 relief bill Moderates vow to 'be a force' under Biden Biden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan MORE (I-Maine), in the Senate basement after Thursday’s vote. Esper declined to comment when asked about the committee approving his nomination.

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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.