Republicans Urge SecNav Nominee to Break With Mabus Legacy

Richard Spencer testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Richard Spencer testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At a Tuesday morning confirmation hearing for Marine veteran and businessman Richard V. Spencer, nominee for secretary of the Navy, it was quickly clear that he would sail through the approval process.

Several lawmakers, however, were anxious to secure his word that he will be different from his predecessor, Ray Mabus, whose dramatic social reforms and tendency to act suddenly and unilaterally alienated some peers and made enemies on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas and former Army captain, was the first to mention Mabus' legacy.

"The morale and welfare of sailors and Marines is of utmost concern for me," Cotton said. "Your predecessor displayed what I think is questionable, indeed strange, judgment on some matters. That left him as one of the most unpopular service secretaries of the modern era."

Among Mabus' questionable decisions, Cotton said, were changes to make the Navy's uniform items more gender neutral that "caused a revolt among female sailors;" his frequently controversial decisions regarding ship-naming, including his move to name fleet replenishment oilers after civil rights activists Harvey Milk and Cesar Chavez; his public dismissal of a Marine Corps study that found small combat teams that included women were slower and less effective; and his efforts in 2012 to build a "Great Green Fleet" powered with biofuel that cost $28 per gallon.

"I think it's unfortunate that you've inherited this legacy, and it's going to make it somewhat hard, as you start out, to restore the credibility of the secretariat," Cotton said. "But do you think making these kind of changes is going to enhance the Navy's ability to deter war and, if necessary, fight and win war?"

Spencer didn't comment on Mabus' legacy, but assured Cotton that he believed readiness should come before any social changes.

"I testified before this committee, I believe in 2015, that it was my belief that the Department of Defense -- specifically, individual services -- was not to be a Petri dish for social experiments," he said. "I totally believe that policy should be developed at the DoD level, and then discussed and socialized and deployed and then obeyed. We have to work together, including all our service people, to make sure that they are given what they need, whether that be spiritually, whether that be psychologically, whether that's materialistically, to fight forward so that -- so readiness is the key and lethality is the product."

Later, Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican and Marine Reserve lieutenant colonel, pressed the issue once again.

Mabus, Sullivan said, had made a "ridiculous" demand of the Corps when he ordered the service to integrate its boot camp by gender in the space of two weeks. After a meeting with Marine brass, Mabus would ultimately retract this request.

"I want to associate my concerns that Senator Cotton raised about your predecessor, who took his eye off the ball on many things -- readiness, but particularly training," Sullivan said.

If confirmed, Spencer said, he would advocate a singular focus for the Department of the Navy.

"The tone will be set from the secretary's office -- that we are all here for one purpose, and that's the pointy end of the spear," he said. "All urgency, all focus, whether a dental hygienist, whether motor pool, whether pilot, whether flag officer, we are all here to attain the goal, and the goal is to deliver the fight."

While Mabus feuded behind the scenes with many Pentagon offices, his actions drew praise from those who saw him as the strongest advocate in years for women in combat and for gay troops.

In answers to policy questions provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee ahead of the hearing, Spencer made clear he did not intend to break with Mabus on the issue of women in combat.

"I believe without reservation that every patriot, with a desire to serve, should be afforded that opportunity, with the singular caveat that all must meet the standards of the Navy and Marine Corps," he wrote in the document. "Maintaining warfighting advantage requires diversity of experience, background and ideas. The Services must pull from the widest pool of talent and backgrounds to maximize warfighting capability, adapt to emerging threats and challenges, and leverage new opportunities."

At the start of the hearing, Spencer was joined by former Navy secretary and senator John Warner, who gave a glowing endorsement to the nominee.

Spencer, he said, had gone out of his way to seek out advice from 10 men who had served in the post before, including Warner and Acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley. The list stretched back to the early 1980s with John Lehman and included recent presidential candidate Jim Webb, among others.

But Mabus, by Warner's account, was not one of them.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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