Senate to expedite defense secretary pick’s confirmation hearing

The Senate Armed Services Committee announced Thursday that it will expedite the process to hold a confirmation hearing for President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of defense Mark Esper despite the fact that Congress is still waiting for the White House to submit his formal nomination.

Esper’s hearing is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, July 16, according to a statement from committee leaders, which noted that the Executive Branch has provided “pre-nomination paperwork.”

The announcement comes at a time when a large number of senior roles at the Pentagon lack permanent appointees. Increased global tensions have prompted senators on both sides of the aisle to begin the confirmation process for Esper as they are eager for stable leadership after more than six months without a permanent defense secretary.

“We need Senate-confirmed leadership at the Pentagon, and quickly. While we will act expeditiously to consider Acting Secretary Esper’s expected nomination, the Committee will uphold our constitutional advice-and-consent responsibilities with the care and consideration this position deserves,” said Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, the committee’s chairman.

“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,” he said.

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed also acknowledged that the Senate is expediting the process but made it clear that “there are no shortcuts and this nominee, like every nominee to this critical post, must be thoroughly vetted and carefully evaluated.”

“Both Chairman Inhofe and I agree the United States needs a permanent Secretary of Defense. We need a confirmed Secretary of Defense who is effective, efficient, and accountable and in it for the long-haul. This hearing will give us a chance to learn more about the nominee, publicly ask questions, and fulfill the Senate’s constitutional role of providing advice and consent,” Reed added.

But while the Senate panel intends to move forward with the confirmation process, Congress is still waiting on the White House to send Esper’s formal nomination. Once that happens, Esper will have to step down from his current acting role due to regulations until he is confirmed by the Senate.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer will step into the temporary role making him the third consecutive acting Defense secretary since James Mattis resigned in January.

Trump announced his intention to nominate Esper, who had been serving as Army secretary, after Patrick Shanahan’s nomination dramatically imploded last month.

Esper will “cease to serve as the acting Secretary of Defense and will become solely serving as the Secretary of the Army,” the Defense Department’s Chief of Staff Eric Chewning told reporters at the Pentagon earlier this week.

At that time Spencer “will become the acting Secretary of Defense,” Chewning added, saying that “for the last two weeks we have been spending time with Secretary Spencer to get him prepared for his duties as the acting secretary of defense, that’s involved a range of operational briefings from the Joint Staff.”

Chewning would not say when Esper’s formal nomination will happen, saying that was “under the purview” of the White House but said that their “expectation” was that it would come “shortly.”

Last week the Department of Defense confirmed to CNN that 18 senior roles were unfilled, providing a complete list of positions currently being filled by temporary officials. The number grew to 19 on Sunday when the Trump administration’s pick to be chief of naval operations, Adm. William Moran, announced his decision to retire after his judgment was questioned over a professional relationship he maintained with a former Navy public affairs official who left the service amid allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

CNN’s Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne contributed reporting.