Senate Sets Date for Esper's Defense Secretary Confirmation Hearing

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper arrives at the Pentagon for his first day as acting defense chief, Washington, D.C., June 24, 2019. (DoD/Lisa Ferdinando)
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper arrives at the Pentagon for his first day as acting defense chief, Washington, D.C., June 24, 2019. (DoD/Lisa Ferdinando)

For the first time since January, the Pentagon may soon have a Senate-confirmed secretary of defense.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing for Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper to take over the permanent position, officials announced Thursday, despite having yet to receive a formal nomination from the White House.

After receiving pre-nomination paperwork from the White House, the committee scheduled the hearing for July 16, Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, and Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, said in a statement.

Defense News was first to report the scheduled hearing. Officials told the paper that, should the White House send over the formal nomination package by Monday, the hearing would proceed Tuesday.

"While we will act expeditiously to consider Acting Secretary Esper's expected nomination, the committee will uphold our constitutional advise-and-consent responsibilities with the care and consideration this position deserves," Inhofe said in the statement.

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He continued, "Next week's hearing will give committee members the chance to ask questions of the expected nominee and learn more about how he will work to lead the Pentagon, advocate for service members, support the National Defense Strategy and keep American families safe."

The committee has already received Esper's policy questions and background-check paperwork, Defense News said.

The move to expedite the process comes as Congress prepares to leave for its August recess in the next three weeks; lawmakers have yet to pass bipartisan Fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization legislation.

In the meantime, the Pentagon has been readying Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer to switch jobs once Esper's confirmation process begins. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 prohibits a secretary nominee from serving in the role in an acting capacity. To get around the problem, the position of acting defense secretary will default to Spencer, who is next in the line of succession, until Esper is confirmed.

President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate Esper as defense secretary in June.

Eric Chewning, chief of staff to the acting secretary, told reporters Tuesday that Spencer has been getting briefings to "get him spun up on all the different operational contingencies" to be familiar with his duties as acting SecDef.

Lawmakers have been eager to fill top Pentagon positions, many of which have been vacant for months or are being filled by officials in an acting capacity.

On Thursday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley went before committee members for his own confirmation hearing to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During the hearing, Inhofe noted that 12 leadership positions within the Defense Department remain vacant.

"We need Senate-confirmed leadership at the Pentagon, and quickly," Inhofe said in the statement on Esper's hearing.

"We're expediting the process, but there are no shortcuts, and this nominee, like every nominee to this critical post, must be thoroughly vetted and carefully evaluated," Reed added.

"Both Chairman Inhofe and I agree the United States needs a permanent secretary of defense," he said. "We need a confirmed secretary of defense who is effective, efficient and accountable, and in it for the long haul."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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