Senate Democrats want to finish up confirmations of senior Pentagon nominees who have been stuck in limbo for months — but there may not be enough time to get the job done.
More than a dozen of President Joe Biden’s civilian nominees await action when the Senate returns after the Nov. 8 midterm elections that could swing control of the chamber.
The list includes those who would oversee weapons purchases and industrial policy as the Pentagon and defense contractors are scrambling to build missiles, drones and ammunition to send to Ukraine and replace depleted inventories for the U.S. and NATO allies.
Confirmations of Biden’s Pentagon picks have ground to a halt in recent months amid resistance from some Republicans, and no nominees have been confirmed since July. Once the Senate returns next week, the need to confirm those officials will compete with other priorities regardless of the election’s outcome, including passing defense policy, striking an agreement to fund the government, and confirming the president’s judicial nominees.
Any nominees who aren’t confirmed by the end of this Congress are sent back to the White House to be renominated and start the process over.
The possibility of the Senate flipping to Republicans adds urgency to getting Pentagon nominees confirmed by the end of the year. Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said confirming all pending Pentagon nominees “turns on the election.”
“If there’s a Democratic Senate in the next term, then we have a little more flexibility to move off of judges and move to other departments,” Reed said last month at a Council on Foreign Relations event. “If we lose the majority, which is 50-50 at the moment, then I think there will be an all-out push to get as many judges as possible confirmed and that will interfere with the ability to get DoD people in.”
While 43 of Biden’s Pentagon nominees have been confirmed over his first two years in office, 11 picks still await a final vote by the full Senate. Four of those nominees have been waiting for confirmation votes since March.
The nominees awaiting votes include the Pentagon’s top watchdog, the chief health official, two senior acquisition leaders and the department’s top legislative liaison.
Two more nominees, Biden’s picks to be inspector general of the National Reconnaissance Office and the Pentagon’s top manpower and reserve affairs official, await Armed Services confirmation hearings.
Much of the logjam stems from objections by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has blocked speedy confirmations in protest of Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Resistance from a lone senator can’t prevent nominees from getting on the job. But Hawley’s blockade forces Senate leaders to burn through more time on the floor by holding extra procedural votes.
A deal to approve a bloc of nominees that has broad bipartisan support could ensure that many officials get on the job by the new year and don’t have to repeat the process and possibly face a GOP-led Senate. But no such deal appears to be in the offing yet.
That’s time the Senate likely won’t have if Democrats are prioritizing putting judges on the bench before losing power, said Arnold Punaro, a former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director.
“Even if you argued that they’re going to work through Christmas and up until Jan. 2 when the new Congress gets sworn in … we’re under the two-minute drill, frankly, when it comes to legislative days,” Punaro said. “And you’ve got 25 judges on the calendar that clearly are a priority for the administration.”
He contends that with “significant headwinds,” the executive branch needs to pressure Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to make filling out the defense bench a priority in the lame duck session. Punaro is specifically pushing for confirmation of two acquisition and industry-related nominees: Radha Plumb to be the No. 2 acquisition and sustainment official and Laura Taylor-Kale to be the Pentagon’s industrial base policy chief.
Defense nominees should be a higher priority for the Senate “based on what they want our industry to do” to help arm Ukraine, he said.
“You’ve got to have people that you can work with that are Senate-confirmed,” Punaro said. “Career people are OK, but … there’s a difference.”
Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who died last week and whose career included a stint as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer in the Obama administration, had even offered last month to help convince leaders to hold votes on Plumb and Taylor-Kale. Punaro said he and Carter discussed it several times, and the former Pentagon chief agreed to the approach the Friday before he died.
Also on the waiting list is Pentagon weapons tester Nickolas Guertin, who is Biden’s pick to be the Navy’s acquisition chief, though the White House hasn’t formally nominated him yet. His selection comes as the Navy battles with Congress over whether to scrap numerous vessels the service contends aren’t worth the cost to maintain. But the delay in Guertin’s nomination means his confirmation will likely get punted to the next session.
Former Pentagon inspector general Glenn Fine is also making the case for the Senate to confirm an IG, which has been filled on an acting basis for more than six years. Biden’s pick for the job, Robert Storch, was approved by the Armed Services Committee in March but still hasn’t received a vote. In an Oct. 20 Government Executive op-ed, Fine called the delay “a mistake.”
“Serving in an acting position is not the same as being the permanent office holder. Some people in the agency — and some even in the IG’s office — think they can wait you out,” Fine wrote. “And a permanent IG can more readily set strategic policy and make long-term personnel decisions.”
Then-President Donald Trump pushed Fine out of the acting job in early 2020, replacing him with Sean O’Donnell, inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency. O’Donnell still fills both posts nearly two years into the Biden administration.
“It’s hard enough to provide oversight of one agency as an IG. It’s virtually impossible to handle two IG jobs, particularly when one of them involves the largest agency in government,” Fine wrote.
Biden has nonetheless made progress in naming his Pentagon team despite the logjam. Just one post, the assistant secretary for acquisition, doesn’t have a nominee out of the 57 Senate-confirmed civilian Pentagon jobs.
Armed Services leaders, meanwhile, will be focused primarily on passing their annual defense policy bill when the Senate returns the week after the elections. With little time left in the session, Reed and ranking Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma aim to quickly pivot to negotiations with the House and produce a compromise bill that can get to Biden’s desk by the end of the year.
It’s unclear whether Senate Democrats will force the issue on stalled national security nominees, a stalemate Reed chafes at.
“It’s annoying in a way, because we are talking about people who play key roles in ensuring the safety and the welfare of men and women in the field,” Reed said.