Lawmakers Warn Ash Carter’s Easy Confirmation Will Be Tough on Obama
To lawmakers, it’s not about Ash Carter as defense secretary. The pick is about the president. By Molly O’Toole
Several senators expressed their support for former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon, with a crucial caveat: the confirmation process will be contentious.
That’s because to them, the pick is not about Carter or anyone else. Whoever is nominated, the confirmation hearing will be used as a referendum on Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State, and as a high-profile public platform for members of Congress to criticize what they say is micromanaging on the part of the White House national security team.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters that no matter Carter’s qualifications for the job, the next defense secretary, like Hagel, would merely be a figurehead beholden to defense policy directives from the commander in chief.
McCain, who heaped praise on Carter when he retired from the Pentagon last year after serving in the No. 2 and No. 3 posts, said he doesn’t expect Carter would have a problem in the confirmation process. “But I hope he understands that the frustration of his three predecessors, who complain bitterly [that] significant decisions are all made by a handful of people in the White House and the secretary of defense is excluded.” As to Carter’s lack of a military background, McCain said, “He has a background in the Department of Defense that’s pretty significant -- and since he’s not involved in most major decisions, it doesn’t matter whether he had a military background or not.”
“It doesn’t matter whether he’s strong or weak; he’s excluded from the major decision making process, which is handled by a handful of people who’ve never heard a shot fired,” McCain said of Obama’s White House team.
Ultimately, he said of Carter, “It may not have been my choice, but I think that he certainly is qualified, but obviously depending on that outcome of hearings -- that’s why we have hearings -- I could support it.”
CNN first reported Tuesday morning that according to administration officials, barring any major surprises, Carter is the president’s pick. White House and Pentagon officials would not confirm the choice to Defense One, but nobody walked back the reports, which later were echoed by several other media outlets.
“I personally am a pretty strong advocate in seeing people who have previously performed well in deputy roles being promoted to the top job,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a briefing later Tuesday, declining to announce Obama’s choice.
McCain, the incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, and retiring chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the White House has not formally sent Carter’s name for the nomination. "It would be a great choice if that’s the choice," Levin said of Carter. "He’s very, very, very well qualified."
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a member of the Armed Services Committee and an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s national security strategy, told reporters Tuesday that Carter shouldn't expect a breezy confirmation process, despite his previous vetting. The Senate unanimously confirmed Carter for his two prior Pentagon posts.
"I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say on national security," she said. "We’ll find out what he thinks about what’s happening … there’s a lot happening around the world that I’m very concerned about the administration’s foreign policy on, and if [Carter’s] their nominee, then he’s going to have to come before the Armed Services committee and really lay out what he thinks the vision should be for our national security policy and what he thinks needs to be done on issues like ISIS, Ukraine. We can go on and on, though obviously, those are the two things on my mind."
McCain said it has yet to be determined when the confirmation process will happen.
Fellow Armed Services Committee member Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said she was considering holding Carter’s nomination over her legislation to reform the military justice system by removing sexual assault cases from the chain of command: “I’ll think about it; I’m thinking about it,” she told Defense One. Gillibrand spokesman Glen Caplin later clarified it was more of a playful response to a question and not something they have yet considered. But it demonstrates how the confirmation could become the vehicle for a number of heated debates on national security. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, said they were unwilling to hold up the defense secretary nomination or the annual defense authorization act, or NDAA, over the military sexual assault legislation.
Senior House and Senate committee aides said Tuesday that the NDAA will be introduced in the House Tuesday and lawmakers intend to use a procedure for passage such that adding amendments will not be possible.
Even if the White House sends Carter’s name to Congress over the next several days, as anticipated, it is likely the confirmation will not take place until the next Congress, meaning that the Republican majority would preside over the process, led by McCain.