WASHINGTON — The US Senate overwhelmingly approved two of President Donald Trump's national defense nominees, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly — both retired Marine generals.
On the heels of Trump's inauguration, Mattis' nomination sailed through the upper chamber with a tally of 98-1. Earlier this month, Mattis testified for three hours before the Senate Armed Services committee and received waiver from Congress for a mandatory seven-year cooling off period for military officers.
Only once before has Congress granted such a waiver, to Gen. George Marshall in 1950, as the cooling-off period is rooted in America's principle of civilian control of the military.
The Senate's lone "no" vote came from New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Personnel. Gillibrand said in a statement she respects Mattis but cast her vote on the civilian control principle.
House Democrats last week rallied for a failed push against the waiver for similar reasons, after the Trump transition team backed Mattis out of a commitment to testify before the House Armed Services Committee.
One of Trump's first acts was signing the waiver bill into law, along with formal nominations and a proclamation for a national day of patriotism.
SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Friday went to the Senate floor to urge his colleagues to support the nomination.
"I want to assure my colleagues, I haven't seen a finer leader, a more outstanding leader, a more respected leader and a more beloved leader, than the man we are going to be voting on to be the secretary of defense, James Mattis," McCain said.
"My friends, I am very confident that when we finish this vote, the morale all over the United States military will go up because they will know that they have a leader, and a leader that they can not only respect but they admire, and in many cases, have great affection for."
While both sides of the aisle have expressed support for Trump's national security nominees, key Democrats are putting up a fight on the others.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Friday accused Republicans of attempting to jam through "a swamp cabinet, full of billionaires and bankers that have conflicts of interest and ethical lapses as far as the eye can see."
Mattis, 66, retired in 2013 after a 44-year military career and serving as commander of US Central Command. He inherits a military amid tensions around the globe, and under a president who has has called for repeal of budget caps and less global military engagement.
Democrats, and some Republicans, are hopeful Mattis will serve as a check on Trump, and some of lawmakers who opposed his waiver praised his merits said they were doing to preserve civilian control.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking member on the SASC, said his approval for the waiver was a one-time vote. He told Mattis at last week's confirmation hearing that "many have supported the waiver legislation in your confirmation because they believe you will be, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, 'the saucer that cools the coffee.' "
There is reportedly strife within Trump's national security team over who will get top jobs in the Defense Department — and who gets to make those decisions. Mattis was rejecting large numbers of candidates offered by the transition team for several top posts, according to The Washington Post.
This after Trump nominated Vincent Viola, a billionaire Wall Street trader, and West Point graduate, to be the secretary of the Army. Team Trump has not named any service secretary nominees since.
The spotlight is on a potential rivalry between Mattis and incoming national security advisor Michael Flynn, a retired three-star forced out of the Defense Intelligence Agency who became an early Trump loyalist. Flynn declined to comment Friday, while Mattis, in his confirmation hearing, said the Trump Cabinet will include a "healthy" mix of rivals.
"It's not tidy," he said. "It'll be respectful, of that I'm certain. And I don't expect anything but the best ideas will win."
The Senate on Friday confirmed Kelly as Homeland Security secretary, 88-11, with only Democrats voting "no." Kelly, 66, is the former chief of US Southern Command and the military jail at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
During his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing, Kelly broke with Trump on several of his most divisive campaign promises, including on a border wall, Muslims coming into the US and torture techniques.
Kelly agreed with McCain that a wall along the southern border would not be enough, and said separately that waterboarding is illegal and the US should follow the Geneva Conventions.
Republicans hoped to bring Trump's nominee for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo, to a vote on Friday as well, but could not reach a deal with Democrats, who want to scrutinize him further. That vote is expected for Monday.