James Mattis clears hurdle in becoming defense secretary

Retired Marine Corps general James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his nomination to be the next secretary of defense in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on January 12, 2017. / AFP / Mandel Ngan        (Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Retired Marine Corps general James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his nomination to be the next secretary of defense in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on January 12, 2017. / AFP / Mandel Ngan (Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Donald Trump’s nominee for defense secretary cleared an important legal hurdle on Friday as the House voted largely along party lines to grant him a special exemption from a key law that had been standing in his way.

The House voted 268-151 in favor of giving Ret. Gen. James Mattis the needed waiver. The Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of doing so on Thursday, after Mattis’ confirmation hearing.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the waiver soon, a move that helps clear the way for installing one of the top members of his successor’s national security team.

Senate Republicans are aiming to vote on Mattis’ confirmation to lead the Pentagon on January 20, the day President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in as president.

Law dictates that any military official must wait seven years from leaving the service before serving as defense secretary, a civilian position. Mattis retired in 2013, meaning he could not be secretary of defense unless Congress passed a special exception.

The law is designed to underscore the importance of civilian control over the military, a principle lawmakers said they did not take waiving lightly.

A waiver had only been granted only once before, to George Marshall under then-President Harry Truman.

The vote in the House was more contentious than the one in the Senate. Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee objected to Mattis abruptly canceling testimony scheduled for Thursday and repeatedly voiced their concern about voting without talking to Mattis during debate in the committee about moving the waiver forward.

In the Senate, Mattis faced a low-key confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where many Democrats expressed hope that the former US Central Command chief and former NATO supreme allied commander could serve as a check on the President-elect in use of force and military decision-making.

Mattis’ confirmation next week is expected given Republicans’ majority and the overwhelmingly bipartisan 81-17 Senate vote in favor of the waiver on Thursday.

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