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 InhofeControversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - At loggerheads, Congress, White House to let jobless payout lapse 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 Warren4 reasons why Trump can't be written off — yet Here are top contenders to be Biden's VP Kamala Harris to young Black women at conference: 'I want you to be ambitious' 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 MattisTrump prizes loyalty over competence — we are seeing the results Lawmakers torch Trump plan to pull 11,900 troops from Germany Are US-Japan relations on the rocks? 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 McConnellGOP scrambles to fend off Kobach in Kansas primary Meadows: Election will be held on November third Don't let Trump distract us from the real threat of his presidency 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.

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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 ReedControversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled Overnight Defense: Pompeo pressed on move to pull troops from Germany | Panel abruptly scraps confirmation hearing | Trump meets family of slain soldier Senate panel scraps confirmation hearing for controversial Pentagon nominee at last minute MORE (D-R.I.) and committee member Sen. Angus KingAngus KingThe Susan Collins conundrum Trump ramps up China tensions with consulate shutdown Congress backs push for national cyber czar 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.