In a 90-8 vote, the Senate overwhelmingly backed Esper, a former lobbyist for weapons maker Raytheon Co, to be President Donald Trump‘s second confirmed leader of the Pentagon.
Esper, 55, received strong bipartisan support despite some sharp questioning during his confirmation hearing by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren about his ties to Raytheon and his refusal to extend an ethics commitment he signed in 2017 to avoid decisions involving the company.
Warren, a 2020 presidential hopeful, was the only member of the Senate Armed Services Committee to voice opposition to Esper’s confirmation during the hearing.
Raytheon is the third-largest US defence contractor. Raytheon is the manufacturer of Paveway precision-guided missiles Congress has sought to block from sale to Saudi Arabia over concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen. Trump supports the weapons transfer and is expected to veto a disapproval passed by the House last week.
There has been no confirmed defence secretary since James Mattis resigned in December over policy differences with Trump. Many members of Congress from both parties had urged the Republican president to act urgently to fill the powerful position.
“The nominee is beyond qualified. His record of public service is beyond impressive. His commitment to serving our service members if beyond obvious. And the need for a Senate-confirmed secretary of defence is beyond urgent,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
Amid escalating tensions with Iran, Esper had told Congress during his confirmation hearing on July 16 that the US was not seeking war with Iran and would pursue diplomatic channels to resolve conflicts in the Gulf region.
An Army veteran, Esper had served as a congressional aide and a Pentagon official under Republican President George W Bush, before working for Raytheon. He has been Army secretary since November 2017.
Trump’s previous pick to be secretary of defence, Patrick Shanahan, withdrew from consideration on June 18 after reports emerged of domestic violence in his family.
Mattis had abruptly quit in December after a falling out with Trump over surprise decisions to yank troops from Syria and start planning a withdrawal in Afghanistan. Trump later reversed those plans.
A number of senior leadership vacancies remain at Pentagon where there still is no Senate-confirmed deputy secretary of defence. David Norquist was nominated for the post on Tuesday and is scheduled to have a confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
David Trachtenberg, the Pentagon’s second-ranking civilian policy official, departed last week. The number two military officer, General Paul Selva, is retiring Friday as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
No Senate confirmation hearing has been set for General John Hyten, the man picked by Trump to replace Selva. A military officer has accused Hyten of sexual misconduct. An investigation found insufficient evidence to charge Hyten, but some members of Congress have raised questions about that process. It’s unclear when or whether Hyten’s nomination will proceed.
Hyten has been the commander of US nuclear forces as the head of US Strategic Command.
At his confirmation hearing, Esper promised that one of his first priorities would be to fix the problem of leadership vacancies.