WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Pentagon took a major step toward confirmation Thursday, after House and Senate lawmakers voted to waive a law blocking the recently retired general from assuming the post.
That means Lloyd Austin, the former Army four-star general and head of U.S. Central Command, could be confirmed as the military’s new leader and the first Black defense secretary as early as Friday.
The House first voted on a bipartisan basis, 326-78 to waive the seven-year cooling-off period for Austin, who retired in 2016, to serve in the top Pentagon job. The Senate, where the waiver needed 60 votes to pass, approved it soon after with a bipartisan tally of 69-27.
Congress waived the same law for retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis four years ago, and he was confirmed on Inauguration Day. But in recent days, some Democrats and Republicans have opposed granting another waiver so soon, saying it undermines the principle of civilian control of the military.
Since House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., voiced similar concerns, he came out forcefully in favor of Austin’s qualifications. On Thursday, he said national security requires Biden to have his defense secretary and the Pentagon to have stability after four years of churn at the top.
“The disruption President Trump brought to the Pentagon cannot be underestimated. They need a fully confirmed secretary of defense, immediately, to begin to thoroughly clean up that mess and get the Pentagon back to being as effective as it needs to be,” Smith said of the Pentagon’s workforce.
“We have a complex threat environment, let’s just say that. We heard, in the committee today, about China and Russia and Iran, the Middle East, North Korea, not to mention the domestic insurrection that we all witnessed here just a couple of weeks ago. There is an urgency to this.”
On the other side of Capitol Hill, the Senate Armed Services Committee had voted to advance the waiver and nomination to the full chamber vote late Thursday afternoon. A Senate confirmation vote is expected Friday, but the timing was not immediately clear.
“I hope the Senate will soon confirm former General Austin on a strong, bipartisan vote so he may begin the urgent task of leading the Pentagon, defending our country, and addressing pressing and complex security challenges,” said Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, SASC’s top Democrat.
Both Biden and Democratic leaders are pressuring lawmakers to emplace Biden’s personnel as the nation faces several converging national crises.
Before a looming impeachment trial for former President Donald Trump threatens to crowd out all other business, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was expected to try to fast-track a confirmation vote.
“Foreign adversaries will seek to exploit this period of transition and we cannot allow America’s military, intelligence, and national security policy to be disrupted by staffing delays,” Schumer said Thursday.
A Trump administration holdover, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, has been serving as the acting defense secretary since Trump left office.
The House vote split Democrats and Republicans, with 121 Republicans voting for the waiver. While a number of Republicans voiced support for Austin, some criticized his leadership of CENTCOM and perceived lack of experience with China or with bureaucratic fights.
“Budgetary pressures on the department are much bigger, particularly in the post pandemic world,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis. “It is going to be far more difficult to build off of the success we’ve had in giving the department the resources it needs. And we will need a secretary with political experience, who can fight and win interagency battles for a higher top line.”
Some Republicans groused that Smith replaced plans for Austin to testify before the House Armed Services Committee as a prerequisite for his waiver with a closed-door round-table with lawmakers. Smith defended the decision, saying he couldn’t hold a hearing while his panel hadn’t finalized its roster for the new Congress.
“I feel even stronger about the need to confirm him after that conversation,” Smith said of Austin and the roundtable. “Not only was he intelligent, not only did he understand the issues, but he had something frankly not everybody in the Pentagon has: he seemed to genuinely respect us. He seemed to genuinely want to answer our questions, want to deal with us as a co-equal branch of government, and that is enormously important.”
On Thursday, 15 Democrats voted against the waiver for Austin. Several said Austin’s historic candidacy and the need for Biden to have his national security team preempted those concerns.
“In light of the deadly insurrection and assault on the capital, the coronavirus pandemic, the undermining of the Pentagon by the previous president, and more, necessitate the expeditious confirmation of this extremely qualified leader,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said ahead of the vote.
“My conversations with the secretary-designate have assured me that he understands, respects and will uphold the critical priority of civilian control of the military.”
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