Lawmakers anxious over lack of Pentagon picks

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President Joe Biden hasn’t yet tapped nominees for some of the Pentagon’s most senior posts — and lawmakers are taking note.

The White House hasn’t sent any defense nominees to the Senate since January, when Biden tapped the Pentagon’s top three leaders. Now, some lawmakers are voicing concerns that key leaders — such as a trio of civilian service secretaries — aren’t in place as the administration gets ready to deliver the broad outlines of its first budget this week and Congress ramps up its work toward annual defense legislation.

"We’ve got to start seeing them," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), told POLITICO of senior Pentagon nominees. "There’s a lot of key positions that I hope we’ll see soon."

Kaine added that he’s been giving names to the administration for potential picks, but hasn’t pushed the White House on its timeline for putting more nominees forward.

"It’s the same thing we went through with the previous administration," added Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, in an interview. "We have a bunch of people who are acting, so there’s no permanency to that and that does not reflect accurately the policy of the president, of this new administration."

Inhofe added that he and Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) have "talked openly" about Pentagon vacancies and described Reed as "equally concerned."

Reed and Inhofe were both critical of the large number of vacant senior Pentagon posts during the Trump administration. Reed’s spokesperson, Chip Unruh, cited the obstruction of Biden’s transition efforts by the Trump administration as a culprit for the slow pace of nominations, but predicted more senior Pentagon picks are in the offing.

"President Trump irresponsibly made the transition harder than it should have been. But we expect to have more nominees soon," Unruh said in a statement. "The key is getting strong, well-qualified nominees who can hit the ground running and I think you’ll see that in the near future."

Two of three picks approved: Biden quickly sent the Senate his picks for the top three Pentagon posts — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks and policy chief Colin Kahl — shortly after being sworn in on Jan. 20. The administration hasn’t announced any more Pentagon nominees in the ensuing months, and senior Senate-confirmed posts in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and in the military services are still filled by acting officials.

Though Austin wasn’t confirmed on Biden’s first day in office unlike prior administrations, the Senate swiftly confirmed him on Jan. 22 with wide bipartisan support. Hicks was easily confirmed in early February.


Kahl, the only Pentagon nominee still awaiting a vote, remains the subject of a partisan tug of war in the evenly split Senate. Kahl’s nomination has slowly advanced amid entrenched opposition from Republicans, who took issue with his policy stances on Israel and Iran as well as partisan tweets that were critical of GOP lawmakers and Trump’s national security policies.

The Armed Services Committee deadlocked in a tied party-line vote on Kahl’s nomination, though Democratic leaders can still advance his nomination to the Senate floor and confirm him. Doing so will require a handful of procedural votes and several tie-breaking votes by Vice President Kamala Harris if all Republicans oppose him as anticipated.

Pushing for personnel: Two months in, lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol have begun hinting that certain top jobs should be filled with urgency.

Reps. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the chair and ranking member of the House Armed Services Seapower panel, have urged the nomination of a new Navy secretary as lawmakers grapple with a costly eleventh hour plan from the Trump administration to boost the fleet to more than 500 ships.

"All the service branches … need leadership and direction there. It can’t all come from the Pentagon because there are unique elements of each of the service branches where you need a secretary there to be leading that effort," Wittman told POLITICO in an interview.

"We’ve tried to emphasize how incredibly important it is going forward to get somebody in, get them confirmed and get them in the saddle so that we have somebody there that we can work with and where there’s some certainty, because without that there’s always a hesitancy," he added. "If you’re in an acting position, there’s a hesitancy to say yes or no."

And in a hearing last week on the posture of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Reed hinted at the panel’s interest in considering a pick for the top post overseeing special operations forces, saying senators "look forward to receiving a nominee so that the department can have a fully empowered" official on the job.

No ‘pre-determined timeline’: The Pentagon, meanwhile, is working to fill high-level vacancies but isn’t aiming to meet an artificial deadline when it comes to choosing personnel, Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby said.

"The Department is working diligently with administration officials to recommend talented individuals for nomination to vacant positions," Kirby said in a statement. "We understand the importance to national security of having qualified professionals in these key national security jobs.

"To date, we have filled nearly 100 billets, and we have confidence in those leaders serving in an acting capacity," Kirby added. "Our focus is on finding the right people for these leadership roles, not in trying to meet a pre-determined timeline."

Where the rest of the Biden team stands: Despite nominating only three people for Pentagon jobs so far, Biden is outpacing Trump in the number of Senate-confirmed leaders at the Pentagon.

The confirmation of Austin and Hicks to lead the Pentagon exceeds the Trump administration at this point in 2017. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was the only Senate-confirmed defense official until Heather Wilson was confirmed to be Air Force secretary in early May 2017.

Two months into his first year, Trump had announced more Pentagon picks than Biden, though he had mixed success in getting his nominees on the job. In addition to nominating Mattis to lead the Pentagon, Trump also named his picks for all three service secretary posts — Wilson for Air Force secretary, Vincent Viola for Army secretary and Philip Bilden to be Navy secretary. Viola and Bilden, however, withdrew from the nomination process in February 2017.

Biden, meanwhile, has moved more quickly to fill the number two and three posts at the Pentagon. While Hicks was nominated on Inauguration Day and confirmed less than three weeks into Biden’s presidency, Trump nominated Pat Shanahan to be deputy secretary in June 2017 and he was confirmed the following month.

And while Kahl’s nomination has been delayed amid GOP resistance, he may still get on the job months earlier than John Rood, Trump’s first Pentagon policy head. Rood was formally nominated in October 2017 and wasn’t finally approved by the Senate until the following 2018.

Delays in getting permanent, Senate-confirmed Pentagon officials on the job are nothing new, added Arnold Punaro, a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee. Punaro argued that the timeline for vetting, nominating and approving Pentagon nominees has "continued to climb since the Kennedy administration." He credited the Biden administration for filling dozens of Pentagon positions that don’t require Senate confirmation, including a slew of deputy assistant secretary posts.

"Yes, it’s always better [to have Senate-confirmed appointees in place], but frankly, I don’t find the current situation to be out of the norm at all in terms of the timing," Punaro said. "He’s well within the historic window of all his predecessors."

Cramped calendar: Should the Biden administration unveil more senior Pentagon nominees in the coming weeks, the Senate Armed Services Committee will likely consider those personnel picks as it also weighs Biden’s first budget request.

The White House is set to unveil the broad outlines of its fiscal 2022 budget this week, including proposed funding levels for federal agencies such as the Defense Department. A more specific budget request will be unveiled later in the spring, but the framework is meant to allow lawmakers to begin work on annual government spending and policy legislation.

Reed hasn’t yet announced when Senate Armed Services will consider its version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, though the panel typically turns its focus toward the budget, posture hearings with senior defense officials and military commanders and the process of writing the bill in the weeks following the budget submission.

"I will say, I feel like we’ve been spending an awful lot of time on noms and I want to spend some time on legislation and markups," Kaine said.

Though senators will likely find time to approve senior nominees, the cramped calendar could further draw out the process of getting Pentagon personnel confirmed and on the job.

Lara Seligman contributed to this report.

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