House lines up Thursday vote as Democrats fast-track Austin waiver
The House will vote Thursday on a waiver to allow retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as President-elect Joe Biden’s Defense secretary as Democrats move to get him on the job as soon as possible.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced the vote in a note outlining the floor schedule for Thursday.
The move comes after the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday abruptly canceled its public hearing with Austin scheduled for Thursday. A spokesperson blamed logistical issues for the change in plans.
A waiver vote won’t happen until a day after Biden’s swearing in, so Austin won’t be on the job for day one of the new administration. But House Democrats are moving to fast-track Austin, who testified Tuesday afternoon at a Senate confirmation hearing, by scrapping an open hearing and committee votes on a waiver.
Instead, the panel will likely hold a closed-door briefing with the nominee, according to two aides.
Despite some consternation among Republicans about fast-tracking the waiver, Democrats are bullish about the prospects for GOP support. In a call with committee Democrats on Tuesday afternoon, Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) indicated there was solid Republican support for the waiver, according to a source familiar with the call.
The waiver legislation could even have enough support to come to the floor under suspension of the rules — and expedited process for bills that requires a two-thirds majority to pass — according to a House Democratic aide, though that’s unclear so far.
The public hearing was initially planned as part of the process of granting Austin a waiver, which would exempt him from the requirement that he be out of the military for at least seven years. Both the House and Senate must pass the waiver for Austin to serve.
An Armed Services aide said the closed-door briefing will likely occur Thursday, the same day as the House vote, and Austin will appear via teleconference.
House Armed Services Democratic spokesperson Monica Matoush said the committee can’t hold a public hearing until full slates of members are appointed and the panel formally adopts its rules. So far, only Democrats have named members to the panel.
“The committee cannot formally organize until leadership from both the majority and minority have named the full list of members,” Matoush said. “Once members have been named and the committee has been organized, we will proceed.”
The cancellation of the committee hearing was first reported by Defense News.
The House doesn’t have a formal hand in confirming presidential nominees, but the waiver requirement gives the lower chamber a say in Austin’s future.
Smith had secured a pledge that Austin would testify publicly on the topic of civilian control of the military. Many lawmakers are skeptical of confirming yet another retired general to lead the Pentagon, and the public airing was seen as a way to allay many members’ concerns.
But in recent weeks, House Democrats have discussed speeding up the process of passing a waiver. POLITICO reported last week that some lawmakers pushed to bypass the hearing and committee votes altogether and instead hold a closed briefing, in an attempt to get Austin on the job faster in the wake of a deadly attack on the Capitol by insurrectionists supporting outgoing President Donald Trump.
Over the weekend, Smith called for House Democrats to unite and pass the waiver. The chair warned that blocking Austin, who would be the first Black defense secretary, “will send a false, dangerous message that Congress believes a highly qualified African American is unable to do the job.”
Some Republicans, meanwhile, are lining up against the waiver. The Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus that counts most House Republicans as members, took an official position opposing the waiver last week.
It’s unclear if skipping the hearing will cost Austin support among House members who clamored for the session or if a briefing will suffice.
Most House Democrats, including Smith, opposed a waiver for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in 2017 after the retired Marine general didn’t show for a planned public Armed Services hearing.
Unlike this week’s planned briefing, House Armed Services members didn’t have a chance to talk with Mattis before voting on the waiver.
Heather Caygle contributed to this report