The House voted 326-78 Thursday to grant the waiver needed for Lloyd Austin to serve as President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, and the Senate was poised to follow suit.
Austin, who retired as an Army general in 2016, would be the first Black leader of the Defense Department. But he can’t get the job unless Congress exempts him from a law barring military officers from the Pentagon’s top civilian post within seven years of retirement.
The Senate has yet to act on the waiver or on the separate confirmation vote required in that chamber for all cabinet nominees. It was preparing to vote on the waiver promptly Thursday after the Senate Armed Services Committee approved both the waiver and the nomination earlier in the day.
Arguing for the waiver, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on the House floor 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 approved the first of Biden’s nominees, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, on Wednesday. The Senate traditionally has sought to confirm national security nominees quickly after a new president takes office to send a message of stability to allies and adversaries.
Congress approved a waiver for Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, to serve as former 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,” Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has said. Smith voted against a waiver for Mattis in 2017.
Smith, a Democrat from Washington, introduced the waiver legislation for Austin.
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.”
Senator 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.”Some prominent Democrats, including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, have said they wouldn’t back a waiver but would vote to confirm Austin if he received one.Testifying before Senate Armed Services on Tuesday, Austin, 67, pledged 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 told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “So, if confirmed, you can expect me to empower my civilian staff.”