House Approves Waiver For Lloyd Austin, Biden's Pick To Head Pentagon
The House of Representatives approved a waiver Thursday for retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as President Biden's defense secretary.
Normally the House has no role in confirming Cabinet secretaries. But Austin retired from the military four years ago, short of the seven years required by law to take the civilian job without a waiver from both houses of Congress.
Austin will make history if confirmed by the Senate, becoming the nation's first Black Pentagon chief. He would be just the third defense secretary to require a waiver from Congress to assume the post.
Retired Gen. of the Army George Marshall, nominated in 1950 by former President Truman, and retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, former President Trump's first defense secretary, are the only other secretaries to receive waivers.
Earlier Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved Austin's waiver by voice vote, paving the way for the full Senate to take up Austin's confirmation. The two top-ranking senators on the committee, Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, both support Austin's nomination.
"After this week's nomination hearing, I am very confident that Lloyd Austin will be a strong, capable civilian leader for the Pentagon at this critical time," Inhofe said.
The timing of a Senate floor vote on Austin's waiver and confirmation remains tricky, as Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remain locked in talks on a power-sharing plan for the chamber and the scheduling of a second Trump impeachment trial.
The U.S. Code states that "a person may not be appointed as Secretary of Defense within seven years after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer of a regular component of an armed force." It's an issue Democrats and Republicans raised Tuesday during Austin's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Let me say at the outset, that I understand and respect the reservations that some of you have expressed about having another recently-retired general at the head of the Department of Defense," Austin told lawmakers.
"The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces. The subordination of military power to the civil," he added.
In an op-ed last month in The Atlantic,Biden described Austin as a trailblazer. "Austin's many strengths and intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government are uniquely matched to the challenges we face," Biden wrote. "He is the person we need in this moment."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also endorsed Austin, saying that he "brings a great understanding of the challenges facing our nation's defense and a deep appreciation for the sacrifice of our military heroes and their families."
Austin served in the Army for more than 40 years, including three years as head of U.S. Central Command, a marquee post that oversees military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Austin was the first Black general to serve in this post.
Earlier this week, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chair of the House Armed Services Committee, vouched for Austin, saying in a series of tweets that he has "no doubt that civilian control of the military will be completely upheld" should he be confirmed. Smith added that not confirming him because of his recent military service would be troubling.
"Blocking @LloydAustin's confirmation would send a false, dangerous message that Congress believes a highly qualified African American is unable to do the job –that would be a grave mistake," Smith said.
Adding to the pressure on House Democrats are reports that members of the Republican Steering Committee, an influential conservative bloc of House lawmakers, plan to oppose the waiver for Austin. It argues that approving it would set a "new dangerous precedent" after doing so just four years after granting a waiver to Mattis.
"Furthermore, regardless of the 'waiver,' Gen. Austin is not the right person for the job of secretary of Defense," the committee said in a memo to members, according to The Hill.
In 2017, 36 House Democrats joined all but one GOP member in approving the waiver for Mattis. The lone Republican defection, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., did not seek reelection in 2020.
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