After a 7-Month Vacancy, the Pentagon Has a Senate-Confirmed SecDef

 Army Secretary Mark T. Esper answers questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on July 16, 2019. (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)
Army Secretary Mark T. Esper answers questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on July 16, 2019. (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Army Secretary Mark Esper was confirmed by the full Senate on Tuesday to become the next -- and permanent -- secretary of defense, filling the void left at the top of Pentagon's chain of command by the abrupt resignation of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last December.

The vote in favor of Esper was 90-8, following a previous 85-6 vote by the Senate on a motion to advance the nomination to the floor. He is expected to be sworn in Tuesday night by Vice President Mike Pence and report for his first day on the job at the Pentagon early Wednesday morning.

Esper last week received a voice vote from the Senate Armed Services Committee to send his nomination to the full Senate, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, recording a "No" vote over her objections to Esper's former work as the top lobbyist for defense industry giant Raytheon.

In the limited debate before the Senate voted Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said the qualifications of the retired Army lieutenant colonel, who served in Desert Storm, are "beyond obvious" and the need to have a Senate-confirmed defense secretary is "beyond urgent."

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Since Mattis' departure in a policy dispute with President Donald Trump over withdrawing troops from Syria, leadership at the Pentagon has been in repeated flux as officials switched positions or resigned, leaving appointees to serve in acting capacities.

Patrick Shanahan, who served under Mattis as deputy secretary, was initially named acting defense secretary and was the presumed nominee for the permanent position.

However, the White House never sent formal notification of his nomination to the Senate, and he withdrew from consideration and resigned in June to avoid a hearing that would examine his messy divorce.

Esper, who had impressed budget hawks at the White House with his efforts to cut wasteful programs as Army secretary, was then named acting defense secretary but had to step down under federal rules barring an acting secretary from succeeding to the permanent post.

Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer moved over to become acting defense secretary and is expected to switch back to his old post once Esper takes the oath.

The absence of a Senate-confirmed defense secretary has been the longest in the history of the armed forces since the post was created after World War II.

The 55-year-old Esper, who has varied experience at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, at think tanks and in the private sector, pledged during his confirmation hearing to stick closely to Mattis' guidelines under the National Defense Strategy to transform the military into a force more focused on countering Russia and China than the counter-terrorism tactics that have dominated since 9/11.

He faced no opposition at the hearing until he was confronted by Warren over his previous ties to Raytheon. Esper, as Army secretary, had recused himself on matters involving Raytheon for two years; that recusal expires in November.

Warren demanded that he extend his recusal from Raytheon decisions for his term as defense secretary, if confirmed. When he refused, Warren said, "that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense."

All eight votes against Esper came from Democrats, including five who are running for the presidential nomination. A sixth seeking the nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, missed the vote.

The votes from presidential hopefuls against Esper came from Warren and Sens. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York; Kamala Harris, D-California; and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota.

The other three votes against Esper came from Sens. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts; Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon; and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.

As top civilian for a military with 1.2 million active-duty members and a current budget of $716 billion, Esper will have the twin tasks of providing much-needed stability at the Pentagon while reasserting the traditional strong role of the defense secretary in national security policy.

In Mattis' absence, the main voices on national security have been National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former classmate of Esper's at West Point.

The immediate crisis facing Esper is in the Gulf region, where escalating tensions were marked last week by Iran's seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker with a crew of 23 aboard.

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Esper said he backs Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran and also supports the proposed "Operation Sentinel," in which allies would join in escorting ships through the Strait of Hormuz.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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