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Senate confirms retired generals as first two Trump cabinet members

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate confirmed the first two members of President Donald Trump's cabinet on Friday, voting overwhelmingly to approve two retired four-star Marine generals as his secretaries of defense and homeland security hours after Trump was sworn in as commander-in-chief.

The Senate voted 98-1 to confirm James Mattis to lead the Pentagon, and 88-11 to confirm John Kelly for homeland security, a sprawling department responsible for everything from domestic antiterrorism to border security and disaster prevention.

The Senate also voted 89-8 to clear the way for a vote on Monday on another member of Trump's national security team, Republican U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, his nominee to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

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Trump's fellow Republicans, who hold a 52-seat majority in the 100-member Senate, have been sparring with Democrats over confirmations of nominees for cabinet posts and other senior positions.

Republicans had hoped to confirm at least seven on Friday, but Democrats objected, complaining that Republicans were trying to force votes too quickly on nominees who were too slow to provide financial and ethics information.

Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics and risking public safety by delaying national security team nominations that they knew would eventually go through.

The CIA post is one of the most highly charged in Washington, amid controversy surrounding Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Trump's favor.

The last CIA director, John Brennan, who had criticized Trump, resigned Friday.

Trump belittled the agency as he questioned its conclusion that Russia was involved in cyber hacking that interfered with the vote, in which Trump, a New York businessman and reality television star, defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state.

"We face threats foreign and domestic. It's critical for the president to have a full national security team today, day one," said Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

DEMOCRATIC RESERVATIONS

Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand was the only senator to vote against Mattis, a 66-year-old commander revered by Marines. She was also the only member of the Armed Services Committee to vote against him when the panel approved him by 26-1 earlier this week.

Gillibrand has said she admires Mattis. But she objected to waiving a law on civilian control of the U.S. military to allow him to lead the Pentagon only 3-1/2 years after retiring from the Marines, instead of the seven required by the statute.

The law had only been waived once before, in 1950, to allow George Marshall, the post-war Secretary of State, to serve as Secretary of Defense.

Congress passed Mattis' waiver last week, and Trump signed it just after he was inaugurated on Friday.

Eleven Democrats voted "no" on Kelly, also 66. While the 40-year military veteran is also very popular, some Democrats said he had not done enough to assure them that he would oppose some of Trump's most controversial proposals.

For example, they said he had not rejected rounding up and deporting thousands of people who entered the United States illegally as children, but have been productive members of society.

That group, known as "Dreamers," were protected from deportation by an executive order signed by former President Barack Obama. Trump has promised to rescind many such orders.

Trump said he was pleased that Mattis and Kelly were confirmed.

"I call on members of the Senate to fulfill their constitutional obligation and swiftly confirm the remainder of my highly qualified cabinet nominees, so that we can get to work on behalf of the American people without further delay," he said in a statement.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)