President-elect Trump, through his announcement that he will nominate retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to lead the Defense Department, has given Senate Democrats a power they did not expect to have: the opportunity to filibuster one of Trump’s Cabinet picks.
That power was long provided by the rules of the Senate, but retiring Democratic Leader Harry Reid used the nuclear option to change the rules of the Senate in 2013 when his party enjoyed the majority.
So while it will be simple to muster the 51 votes to confirm Mattis, getting to that point will be much harder. First, the Senate must waive the requirement that a former officer be out of uniform for at least seven years before taking over the Pentagon, since Mattis retired only three years ago.
The narrow debate over that exemption could become the scene of a heated contest over Trump’s policies and an early opportunity to wound the incoming administration.
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It didn’t take long for one Democrat to raise that objection. “While I deeply respect General Mattis’s service, I will oppose a waiver,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Thursday. “Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule.”
It’s not clear that 40 Democrats share that conclusion. But Democratic leaders might at least slow down the confirmation process in order to launch a broadside against Trump’s foreign policy team — retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the incoming White House national security adviser, in particular.
“I honestly don’t know yet,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide told the Washington Examiner, when asked if a filibuster against Mattis might be in the offing.
“There’s an argument to be made for using the Mattis nomination to debate Trump’s Dr. Strangelove foreign policy, including the Flynn appointment, which we don’t get to debate otherwise,” the aide continued. “Do we really want the three people deciding whether to start a nuclear war to be a president who gets his intelligence from TV and can be provoked with a tweet, a national security adviser who can’t distinguish between real and fake news, and a defense secretary nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’? The three of them will probably be looking for any excuse to start a nuclear holy war.”
The problem with that line of attack is that Mattis, who urged Trump not to revive waterboarding captured terrorists and said Obama’s Iran deal might be “the best we could come up with,” might be the strongest exponent of traditional American foreign policy on Trump’s team. “If you want to unintentionally empower Mike Flynn, then they should slow down Mattis’ nomination,” a senior Senate Republican aide told the Examiner. “There’s a very strong possibility that Mattis boxes out some of Flynn’s potentially crazier ideas.”
Some Democrats agree. “Based on what I know of General Mattis, his record and experience offer a strong balance to the president-elect’s lack of familiarity with foreign affairs,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said Friday. “General Mattis is a voracious reader who learns from history and understands the importance of alliances, diplomacy, and other tools of American power and influence. I look forward to digging deeper into the implications that granting General Mattis a waiver would have on our country’s history of civilian control of the military, as well as his record and experience.”
That kind of public praise might make it difficult to sustain a filibuster without Republicans accusing them of abusing the process. “It’ll be interesting to see if Democrats use this as an opportunity to tempt Republicans into being stupid enough to abolish the filibuster for legislation,” a GOP operative said. “Democrats always play the long game. We never do.”