WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee is poised to push five top defense nominees out of committee and toward a Senate-wide confirmation vote, in a move Chairman John McCain acknowledged may result in a "confrontation" with Democrats on the Senate floor.
McCain, R-Ariz., pledged at the end of a hearing today that he would push four nominations — David Trachtenberg to be principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, Owen West to be assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, Ryan McCarthy to be undersecretary of the Army and Charles Stimson to be general counsel of the Department of the Navy — out of committee as soon as possible, indicating it may happen this afternoon.
Speaking to reporters afterward, McCain also indicated secretary of the Navy nominee Richard Spencer, who had a hearing on Tuesday, would be part of that committee group.
The move comes days after the White House accused Democrats of holding up nominees in the Senate. Democrats have countered that the White House has been slow to send names for confirmation.
"If the Democrat leader continues to block your nominations, we’re going to have a bit of a confrontation on the floor of the Senate," McCain said. "We can’t defend this nation without people in the positions you’re nominated for, and holding them up for days or even weeks is just unacceptable when you look at what’s happening in the world."
"I’m not happy with some of the things you’re associated with, some of your statements, but I also think overall you need to get to work. We have a lot of things that need to get addressed," McCain added, addressing the nominees.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech Tuesday that if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., brought three pending DoD nominees to the floor vote, "they will be approved."
Schumer did not name the nominees, and there are four awaiting a floor vote: Shanahan, principal deputy undersecretary of defense nominee Elaine McCusker, director of cost assessment and program evaluation nominee Robert Daigle and assistant defense secretary nominee Robert Hood.
The hearing itself was a mostly calm affair. The largest sticking point came regarding previous comments from Stimson and West, but both men largely sidestepped the potential landmine.
Stimson famously had to resign in 2007 as deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs over controversial remarks in which he criticized lawyers who represent terrorism suspects. McCain referred to it as a "dumb mistake" and noted Stimson had "paid the price" for it, while Stimson took his lumps from McCain and other senators on the issue.
"I made a boneheaded statement," Stimson said. "They don’t reflect my professional views, and that’s why I apologize."
Similarly, West had to apologize and walk back statements made in a 2016 editorial regarding the integration of women into Marine combat roles. West said he was "reactionary" in his response.
"I regret it. The article drifted, and there are sentences in there that are clearly wrong that i don’t even agree with. If confirmed, i come with no agenda and no politics. I support all the DoD policies and the fact is, all jobs are open," West said. "Gender indifferent. That is my position."
Trachtenberg, who will likely serve as the acting undersecretary of defense for policy, if confirmed — there is yet to be a full USD-P nominee named, although Lockheed Martin executive John Rood is considered the front runner for the role — made the most eyebrow-raising comments with blunt assessments of threats around the world, including some that directly contradicted recent statements from top White House officials.
In one case, Trachtenberg was asked about a recent statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said Russia may have the "right approach" in Syria. While noting he did not have the full context available to him, Trachtenberg said "taking it on face value, I would have to disagree with that. Russia objectives in Syria are clearly antithetical to our objective." He also stressed that no Syrian deal can work if Bashar Assad remains in power.
Trachtenberg later seemed to contradict U.S. President Donald Trump on the question of whether Russia attempted to influence the American election last fall. While the intelligence community has been untied in its assessment that Russia attempted to interfere, Trump has been less equivocal, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial.
Asked about the issue, Trachtenberg said, "I have no reason to doubt the conclusions of the intelligence community," adding that "it was certainly a hostile act. An attack like that, in the cyber realm does not, in my view, need to be defined as an act of war in order to merit an aggressive response."
The tone of the committee was friendly from the get-go. Stimson received an enthusiastic endorsement from Secretary of the Interior Ryan ZInke, an old friend of Stimson. West, meanwhile, was given endorsement from SASC member Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who said he would be "proud to support" the nominee.
Trachtenberg also noted that his experience as a House Armed Services Committee staffer gave him an appreciation for the key role Congress plays in defense — perhaps a savvy move given McCain’s previous complaints that the White House thinks the Senate is simply a "rubber stamp" on nominees.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.