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Former Obama defense secretary: Democrats should give Mattis waiver for Pentagon post

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former Obama Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is calling on fellow Democrats to grant retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to head the Defense Department, the waiver necessary for him to be able to lead the Pentagon under the incoming Republican administration.

By law, any military member nominated to be secretary of defense is required to have been out of uniform for at least seven years before assuming the role, but in an interview with the Washington Post, Panetta called the 1947 law "arbitrary" and said it is an outdated rule from when generals had a singular role as war fighters.

"That was in a time coming out of World War II when there was a tremendous reliance on military leadership during the war and a recognition that they were warriors while the people considering defense policy had to consider wider issues," he said. "I believe that civilian control and civilian involvement in the Defense Department is an important principle, but I also don’t think a military background should be disqualifying."

Panetta told the Post that Mattis' past experience — from helming Central Command during Panetta's tenure at the Pentagon to his post before that as head of Joint Forces Command — has helped prepare him to lead the Defense Department.

Mattis left the Marine Corps in 2013.

Though he supports the waiver, Panetta said it is important for lawmakers to ensure Mattis "understands that he has to play a role not just on the military side but also on the civilian side," adding, "I think he does."

A vote on the waiver is expected to quickly pass through the House, but some Senate Democrats have suggested they may try to block Mattis' nomination. Republicans will need to sway eight Democrats in order to meet the 60-vote threshold necessary to allow the retired general to control the Pentagon.

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