Senate clears Austin waiver, setting up confirmation vote to be Biden’s Pentagon chief
Lloyd Austin’s nomination for defense secretary is nearly a done deal after both the House and Senate on Thursday signed off on a waiver for the retired Army general to take the job as he heads toward a confirmation vote Friday morning.
The Senate passed the waiver in a wide 69-27 vote. The legislation now heads to President Joe Biden for his signature.
The full Senate is expected to confirm Austin, who would be the first Black defense secretary, Friday morning. The move is part of an overall push by the White House and congressional Democrats to get Biden’s national security picks on the job as soon as possible.
Lawmakers moved at warp speed to approve the legislation. The House approved the waiver in a bipartisan 326-78 vote on Thursday afternoon, and the Senate kicked off its vote minutes later.
Austin, who retired in 2016, needs a waiver to the law requiring he be out of uniform for seven years before becoming Pentagon chief. Congress also granted a waiver for retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis to run the Defense Department under former President Donald Trump.
On Thursday morning, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the waiver and his nomination by voice vote, according to a committee Republican spokesperson. The move reflected bipartisan support for Austin ahead of a vote in the full Senate, despite doubters in both parties who are concerned by the retired four-star general’s nomination.
The selection of a second four-star general in four years to lead the Pentagon has upset lawmakers in both parties who’ve raised concerns about further eroding the already precarious tenet of civilian control of the military.
Austin has also garnered the support of Senate Armed Services leaders Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).
Reed, who will soon take over as chair of the committee, called for Austin’s confirmation “as soon as possible.”
“The Senate must work together to protect the American people,” Reed said in a statement. “There is an urgent and widely recognized need to move forward with getting a new national security team in place.”
Still, several Senate Armed Services members in both parties, however, have telegraphed that they won’t support a waiver — including Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Democrats Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
But Austin largely cruised through a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, pledging to empower civilian voices at the Pentagon, respond to congressional oversight and extend the terms of his ethics agreement that bars him from making decisions that affect defense contractor Raytheon Technologies, where he was a board member.
Several Armed Services Republicans also pledged their support, citing Austin’s extensive military experience and a deference to the new commander-in-chief’s picks.
Blowout House vote: The House’s approval saw Democrats unify around Biden’s pick as well as solid Republicans support. In all, 121 Republicans supported the measure, despite opposition from some GOP members of the Armed Services Committee and the party’s main conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee.
Only 15 Democrats opposed the waiver. The Senate is slated to vote on the waiver Thursday afternoon.
The vote came after Austin briefed the House Armed Services Committee behind closed doors. The closed-door House briefing replaced a planned public hearing with Austin on civilian control of the military.
Ahead of the vote, House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) hailed Austin as “unquestionably highly qualified” for the job and said the retired general has adequately demonstrated his commitment to civilian control of the military.
“I can tell you and all members voting without a shadow of a doubt I have no concern whatsoever about Lloyd Austin upholding civilian control of the military,” Smith said.
Proponents also highlighted the historic nature of Austin’s selection at a time that country and military is grappling with issues of systemic racism, including extremists in the military as well as a lack of diversity in the senior ranks.
Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) said Austin’s professional record and life experience “cry out for a waiver.”
“His confirmation is more than a symbolic milestone towards genuine integration of the Department of Defense,” Brown said. “It’s a substantive answer to many of the challenges the military faces.”
The top House Armed Services Republican, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, declared on the floor ahead of the vote that he’d support the waiver, but slammed Democrats for not holding a public hearing or markup.
“I voted for the waiver for Gen. Mattis, and I will vote for the waiver for Gen. Austin,” Rogers said. “For me, that is fair — a waiver for a Republican president and a Democrat president. But I stand here frustrated with a dysfunctional process.”
Mattis didn’t publicly testify in 2017, but Rogers noted the Armed Services panel held a public markup.
Smith, who has been pushing Democrats to back a waiver in recent days, shot back that Republicans shouldn’t be “crying about process” because they hadn’t appointed members to the committee yet, which blocked the panel from holding a formal hearing.
“I have begged the Republicans for the better part of a month to appoint their members so we could do our job,” Smith said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also leaned on Democrats to back Biden’s pick on a caucus call Thursday morning.
“Can you give the President of the United States the benefit of the doubt?” Pelosi asked members, according to Democrats on the call.
Heather Caygle and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.