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House And Senate Approve Waiver For Lloyd Austin, Biden's Pick To Head Pentagon

The House of Representatives and Senate approved a waiver Thursday for retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as President Biden's defense secretary. Both votes were overwhelming and bipartisan.

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.

A Senate vote on Austin's confirmation is expected as soon as Friday.

Austin will make history if the Senate confirms him, 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.

George Marshall, retired general of the Army nominated in 1950 by President Harry Truman, and retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, former President Donald 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. 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 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." Democrats and Republicans both raised the issue 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."

Austin arrives at the inauguration ceremony Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol. Austin needed Congress to approve a waiver for him to serve as Pentagon chief because he hasn't been out of uniform for the required seven years.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Getty Images
Austin arrives at the inauguration ceremony Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol. Austin needed Congress to approve a waiver for him to serve as Pentagon chief because he hasn't been out of uniform for the required seven years.

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 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 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 were reports that members of the Republican Steering Committee, an influential conservative bloc of House lawmakers, planned to oppose the waiver for Austin. It argued that approving it would set a "new dangerous precedent" after doing so 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 of Michigan, did not seek reelection in 2020.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.