Congress may give retired General Lloyd Austin the votes he’d need to serve as Joe Biden’s defense secretary as soon as Thursday, making him the second member of the new president’s national security team to win confirmation.
Both the House and Senate prepared to vote later in the day on granting Austin — who stepped down from his Army post in 2016 — a waiver from a law banning military officers from the Pentagon’s top civilian post within seven years of retiring. That could be followed by a Senate vote to confirm him.
Austin, who would be the first Black secretary of defense, would be the second member of Biden’s national security team to be confirmed after the Senate approved Avril Haines on Wednesday as director of national intelligence. 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.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday she was confident her chamber would have the votes to approve the waiver for Austin.
The Senate Armed Services Committee convened a hastily called meeting Thursday morning to approve both the waiver and the nomination, although it said the full Senate wouldn’t act on confirmation until the panel reviewed Austin’s answers to written questions. It gave Austin until Thursday afternoon to provide his responses, according to a congressional aide.
Congress approved an exemption 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.
That’s presented a dilemma for some lawmakers otherwise inclined to back Austin.
Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services panel, pledged in 2017 that he wouldn’t support another waiver after the one given to Mattis. But Reed said on Wednesday that he would support the waiver and confirmation because Austin “is the right person to lead the Pentagon through a unique, complex, and unprecedented set of challenges.”
Austin also has the support of the Senate panel’s top Republican, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, and several other GOP members. 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 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.”
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