Mattis pick for Defense opens debate in Congress on ex-generals

President-elect Donald Trump’s pick of retired General James Mattis as defense secretary has some lawmakers warning that his Cabinet shouldn’t be stocked with military brass at the expense of civilian leadership.

The debate over civilian control is more than just tradition: Legislation barring retired officers from heading the Pentagon within seven years of retiring from military service means Trump would need Congress to pass a law allowing Mattis, who retired in 2013, to take the post.

“While I deeply respect General Mattis’s service, I will oppose a waiver,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement after Trump said Thursday night that he’ll name Mattis on Monday. “Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule.”

Mattis has strong support in Congress, though, especially among Republicans. John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will hold Mattis’s confirmation hearing, will lead the parallel fight for a law exempting him from the seven-year limit. Mac Thornberry of Texas, who heads the House Armed Services Committee, also supports the waiver.

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While only the defense secretary is subject to the seven-year restriction, the debate will turn on Trump’s heavy dependence on former military officers for top roles on his national security team. Mattis would serve in tandem with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, named by the president-elect to head the National Security Council.

Retired Gen. David Petraeus remains in the running for secretary of State. Trump’s pick for CIA director is former West Point graduate Mike Pompeo, although he isn’t a recent military retiree.

Congress must “bear in mind the precedent we would be setting and the impact it would have on the principle of civilian leadership of our nation’s military,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, said in a statement. “That concern would be further heightened should the president-elect nominate any further military personnel to high positions of civilian leadership in his administration.”

McCain said in an interview before Trump confirmed his choice of Mattis that the outcome depends on “what the Democratic leadership decides and I don’t know what that is.”

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A key player will be Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, who has been mum on Mattis’ selection. “He hasn’t taken a position on it,” spokesman Matt House said in an e-mail.

Congress is likely to vote on legislation clearing the path for Mattis as soon as Jan. 20, Trump’s inauguration day, according to a congressional aide who asked not to be named because the decision hasn’t been made official.

Congress has made only one exception from the law restricting former generals heading the Pentagon and that was in 1950 for a military legend, Gen. George C. Marshall.

Even then, the legislation authorizing Marshall’s appointment as secretary of defense stipulates: “It is hereby expressed as the sense of the Congress that after General Marshall leaves the office of Secretary of Defense, no additional appointments of military men to that office shall be approved.”

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Even Democrats questioning the wisdom of granting an exemption tempered their comments with praise of Mattis, the ex-general known as “Mad Dog” for his candor and his military record.

“Civilian control of the military is not something to be casually cast aside,” Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Friday in a statement. “So while I like and respect General Mattis a great deal, the House of Representatives would have to perform a full review, including hearings by the Armed Services Committee, if it were to consider overriding the statutory prohibition.”

Leon Panetta, a former defense secretary under President Barack Obama, said before the appointment that Mattis is “a tough general, spoke the truth, was a good adviser.”

Still, Panetta said in an interview taped to air on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, “I do think that it’s important for Congress to talk with him, if he is nominated, to make sure that he also understands the civilian perspective. Because I think it’s important to have that when you become secretary.”

Mattis retired in 2013 after a 41-year career in the Marines that took him from rifleman to Corps commandant to head of the U.S. Central Command.

National security analysts were guardedly optimistic that Trump’s choices wouldn’t erode the nation’s tradition of civilian control over the military.

It’s “too early to start hyperventilating about civil-military relations,” said Mark Cancian, a former Marine who served with Mattis in Iraq, and is now a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In roles such as head of Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, “he has had to interact with civilians at senior levels,” Cancian said. “He’s reassuring in that he has broad support and has spoken thoughtfully about international issues.”

Bloomberg contributors: Tony Capaccio, Billy House and Steven T. Dennis.