WASHINGTON — The Senate is on track to confirm many of President Joe Biden’s seven remaining Pentagon nominees after Democrats reached an agreement with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., to break his yearlong logjam on Defense Department confirmations in the last Congress.
Biden renominated the seven Pentagon nominees on Tuesday shortly after senators were sworn in for the new Congress, only to adjourn for three weeks before starting to confirm them.
The defense candidates were among nearly 100 names Biden resubmitted for positions across the government.
Despite the recess, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., scheduled the nomination of Brendan Owens to serve as the assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment as the Senate’s first floor vote in the new Congress when it returns Jan 23.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., told Defense News that the chamber worked “very diligently” in the final moments of the last Congress to confirm three additional Pentagon nominees in December following the Hawley agreement. Reed said he plans to push for the remaining Pentagon nominees to receive floor time soon.
“We were ready to get [defense] nominees done at the time because of timing, so we hope those nominees will be brought up early in the session,” Reed told Defense News.
What was the deal?
Hawley agreed last month to allow up and down floor votes on the nominees after Senate Democratic leaders included his legislation to ban the popular, Chinese-owned social media app TikTok from government devices as part of the fiscal 2023 omnibus government funding bill, which Biden signed into law last month.
Punchbowl News first reported on the deal with Hawley in December. Neither Schumer nor Hawley’s offices responded to multiple requests for comment.
The agreement cleared the way for the Senate to hold confirmation votes for three Pentagon nominees: Russell Rumbaugh as the Navy’s comptroller in an 80-10 vote on Dec. 20; Agnes Schaefer as the Army’s manpower chief in a 68-26 vote on Dec. 22; and Franklin Parker as the Navy’s manpower chief in a 70-22 vote on Dec. 22.
The TikTok deal appears to have closed Hawley’s monthslong obstruction of largely noncontroversial Pentagon nominees in the last Congress in protest over Biden’s chaotic 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal.
He first used it to call on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to resign. Then he scaled that back and demanded a public hearing on the Kabul attack that killed 13 American service members and more than 160 Afghan civilians — a hearing he did not receive.
The remaining Pentagon nominations awaiting Senate floor action include picks for top acquisition and industry-focused roles, manpower and personnel positions, and energy, installations and environment jobs.
Those candidates include Laura Taylor-Kale to be assistant secretary of defense for industrial-base policy; Radha Plumb to be deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment; Ravi Chaudhary to be assistant Air Force secretary for energy, installations and the environment; and Lester Martinez-Lopez to be assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has yet to hold nomination hearings for Nickolas Guertin to be assistant Navy secretary for research, development and acquisition, and for Ronald Keohane to be assistant defense secretary for manpower and reserve affairs.
David Berteau, the chief executive of the Professional Services Council, a defense industry group, said Biden’s renominations and Owens’ swift appearance on the Senate’s calendar suggests further speedy action on Pentagon nominees is coming. Berteau said in more than 40 years he’d never seen a president make so many renominations so quickly.
“I do not remember a package of renominations on the day Congress was sworn in,” Berteau said, adding that with Owens bypassing a new hearing and proceeding directly to the floor, “we’re potentially seeing committees waive the need for a second hearing on a bipartisan basis. This gives me hope we will see more nominations move earlier in the process than last year.”
Biden has had 49 Pentagon nominees confirmed during the first two years of his presidency, the same number as former President Donald Trump during the first two years of his presidency, per data compiled by the Center for Presidential Transition. That’s more than the 42 Defense Department nominees the Senate confirmed during the first two years of the Obama administration, but less than the 51 Pentagon confirmations during the first two years of the Bush administration.
Still, Biden’s Pentagon nominees have waited an average of 138.2 days before confirmation during those first two years, far more than the previous three presidents’ Defense Department nominees in the first two years of their respective administrations.
Other Republican senators are blocking expedited floor votes on some of the remaining Pentagon nominees over separate disagreements with the Biden administration.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said this week that he would continue his monthslong block on speedy movement of Taylor-Kale and Plumb over a dispute with the Interior Department regarding a mine project in Alaska. He said the White House thwarted a deal he’d made with senior defense officials to lift his hold.
According to Sullivan, he’d obtained unspecified commitments from the Defense Department regarding critical minerals, but “I was informed remarkably at the 11th hour that the White House wouldn’t sign off on the letter from DoD to me.”
“They were not big at all,” Sullivan said of the commitments. “But evidently it got shit-canned by the White House. And the fact that someone at the White House is reviewing the deputy secretary of defense’s letter to a U.S. senator is remarkable.”
The White House did not answer Defense News’ query on Sullivan’s remarks, but the senator’s account was disputed by a senior Pentagon official who asked not to be named to discuss sensitive matters.
Other Republicans have voiced concern over Chaudhary’s nomination over a 2021 Foreign Policy News op-ed he wrote on using artificial intelligence to track extremism in the military. Chaudhary has since said he regretted writing that after the proposal came under intense Republican criticism during his Senate confirmation hearing last year.
The remaining ad hoc holds on specific nominees from some Republican senators forces Schumer to use valuable floor time to process each confirmation, and the majority leader’s focus has largely been on confirming judges. After Democrats narrowly increased their control of the Senate in November’s elections, it’s an open question whether party leaders maintain that focus.
Reed added that the Senate’s calendar is “much less full of potential judges than before, so I think we can have a more balanced approach. Judges are critical, but these other positions are important, too.”
Sen. Richard Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said it was “fundamentally unfair” that Biden’s team is not in place.
“Secretary Austin visited Chuck a couple of weeks ago and I know he was pleading with him to bring more nominees forward,” Durbin said, before adding that he had “a lot of nominees backed up.”
The Senate has dozens of remaining judicial nominees, which Durbin said are “going right back on the calendar as quickly as we can, so there’ll be plenty to vote for.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.