U.S. Congress approved the waiver needed for Lloyd Austin to serve as President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, a key step toward making the retired Army general the first Black leader of the Pentagon.
The House of Representatives voted 326-78 on Thursday to pass the waiver exempting Austin, who left the military in 2016, from a law that bars officers from the Defense Department’s top civilian post for seven years after retiring. The Senate swiftly followed with a vote of 69-27.
The Senate has yet to act on confirming Austin’s nomination, although Chuck Schumer, majority leader, said a vote would occur on Friday morning. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved Austin’s confirmation earlier Thursday.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that “expeditious confirmation of this extremely qualified leader” is needed in light of circumstances from the coronavirus and the “insurrection assault on the Capitol” to “the undermining of the Pentagon by the previous president.”
The Senate confirmed the first of Biden’s nominees, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, on Wednesday. The Senate traditionally has sought to act on national security nominees quickly after a new president takes office to send a message of stability to allies and adversaries.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged colleagues to confirm Antony Blinken as secretary of state before leaving for the weekend. “We can’t afford the State Department to be rudderless” if an international crisis erupts, he said on the Senate floor.
Some Republicans have said they need to further review Blinken’s written answers to questions. But Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas met with Blinken on Thursday and afterward said he would not block him from getting a floor vote, though he still might vote “no,” according to a Republican aide.
Schumer said he hopes to get Blinken and Janet Yellen, Biden’s choice for Treasury secretary, confirmed this week.
Congress approved a waiver in 2017 for Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, to serve as President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary. It’s a move that lawmakers of both parties said at the time — and have repeated now — should be rare to preserve the tradition of civilian control of the military.
“If we change the law today, we will now have done so twice within four years, effectively destroying the historical precedent against such exemptions,” Republican Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin said, opposing the waiver in Thursday’s House debate.
That issue presented a dilemma for some lawmakers otherwise inclined to back Austin.
“I have spoken with secretary-designate Austin multiple times since his nomination, and I am 100% convinced that he understands the importance of strong civilian control of the military, and that he is completely committed to upholding this cherished principle,” Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has said. Smith voted against a waiver for Mattis in 2017.
In the Senate, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Thursday that he’s “very confident that Lloyd Austin will be a strong, capable civilian leader for the Pentagon,” and “I look forward to voting with the full Senate to confirm Austin as soon as we can.”
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the committee’s top Democrat, pledged in 2017 that he wouldn’t support another waiver after the one given to Mattis. But on Wednesday he said he would do so because Austin “is the right person to lead the Pentagon through a unique, complex, and unprecedented set of challenges.” Testifying before Senate Armed Services on Tuesday, Austin, 67, promised to respect civilian control of the military.
“I know that being a member of the president’s Cabinet — a political appointee — requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform,” Austin said. “So, if confirmed, you can expect me to empower my civilian staff.”
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