White House

Democrats from Mattis’ home state uncertain they’ll support him for defense chief

Like many Democrats on Capitol Hill, Washington state Rep. Adam Smith is trying to decide whether to back retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis as the next U.S. secretary of defense.

Here’s the dilemma:

Mattis, 66, who grew up in Pullman, Washington, and left the Marine Corps in 2013, is regarded by many Democrats as one of the most popular Cabinet picks made by President-elect Donald Trump.

But confirming Mattis would force Congress to waive a 1947 law that prohibits anyone who was on active duty in the previous seven years from getting the job.

“He’s from Washington state and we have a connection,” said Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “I think he is one of the most intelligent, capable people that Trump has picked to this point for his Cabinet – not that I’m saying a lot – but it is a question that needs to be examined.”

The issue of whether to allow a non-civilian to take charge of the U.S. military promises to be one of the first big votes facing the new Congress.

While Cabinet nominees generally require only Senate approval, the House of Representatives will get a chance to weigh in on the Mattis appointment due to his need to get a waiver from the law.

Congress has granted a waiver for a defense secretary only once, in 1950, when President Harry Truman chose Army Gen. George Marshall for the job.

And while Republicans will maintain control of the Senate next year, the Mattis nomination could give Senate Democrats their best shot at thwarting a Trump Cabinet nominee.

Under Senate rules, most nominees will need only 51 votes, a simple majority. But Republicans would have to come up with 60 votes to get Mattis the job if Democrats use a filibuster to try to deny the waiver.

Senators are debating how to proceed.

Last week, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Trump’s pick and said he would back a waiver for Mattis.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic member of the panel, raised the possibility of a filibuster.

“While I respect Gen. Mattis’ service, I’ll oppose a waiver,” she said in a statement on Twitter. “Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy.”

So far, members of the Washington state delegation have had little to say about Mattis.

Neither of the state’s senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, have said how they’ll vote on a waiver.

On Monday, Kerry Arndt, Murray’s spokeswoman, said the senator considered Mattis “a dedicated public servant” and that Murray “will continue having conversations with her colleagues in the weeks ahead about the best path forward.”

In the House, Washington state Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse lauded Trump’s pick, saying “Tri-Citians can be proud that one of their own” has been chosen for the job, a reference to the section of Washington where Mattis lives. And he added that it should “give all Americans confidence that President-elect Trump will be focused foremost on the safety and security of the United States.”

Smith said he wanted the House Armed Services Committee to have hearings and to require Mattis to testify.

“I just hope that the Republican Congress doesn’t try to rush this through without examining the very serious question of civilian control of the military,” said Smith, a 20-year member of the Armed Services Committee.

But admitting to his “mixed emotions” on the subject, Smith said Mattis could bring a “more nuanced thought process” to questions involving the military in the new Trump administration.

“Lord knows who Trump would pick if Mattis is denied,” Smith said.

Trump announced his selection of Mattis at a rally in Cincinnati last Thursday.

Mattis served in the Marine Corps for more than four decades, enlisting in 1969. He served in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq and headed the U.S. Central Command, overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before his retirement three years ago.

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob