WASHINGTON ― Defense Secretary designee Lloyd Austin to testify before the House Armed Services Committee as a prerequisite for his wiaver have been replaced by a closed-door meeting, Defense News has learned.
The hearing wasn’t feasible because the full committee’s membership in the new Congress won’t have been named and seated before Thursday’s scheduled hearing.
“The committee cannot formally organize until leadership from both the majority and minority have named the full list of members” said Monica Matoush, a House Armed Services Democratic spokesperson.
“As such, we cannot yet convene our committee organization meeting or formally conduct committee business like a hearing. Once members have been named and the committee has been organized, we will proceed.”
The closed meeting could help speed Austin’s nomination, but it may rankle panel members who called for a public hearing to hear from Austin on civilian control of the military.
President-elect Joe Biden and Democratic allies have been pressing to bypass a law barring recently retired generals from holding the civilian job ― with new urgency since the Jan. 6 violence at the Capitol.
Subsequent security measures at the Capitol riot have contributed to delays surrounding the House Republican Conference’s meetings to name its members to committees, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Those meetings are expected to proceed Thursday and Friday.
The position of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., had been that lawmakers should hear from Austin directly in a public hearing. He had supported the hearing but also become more vocal in his support for Austin, citing the riots, but also Austin’s potential to become the country’s first Black defense secretary.
“Blocking [Austin’s] confirmation will 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,” he said in a series of tweets Monday night.
In 2016, Smith had opposed a waiver for Jim Mattis after the retired general didn’t appear for a HASC hearing ahead of the vote. Under a Republican majority, the House voted 268-151, with only 36 Democrats voting in favor.
The change in plans comes as growing opposition from conservatives suggests Democrats may not be able to rely on Republican votes. Smith has been working to working to unify Democrats, and lobbied them in a letter Monday to support the waiver he introduced last week.
“I share the concerns of many that we must be sure to maintain strong civilian control of the military, as required in our Constitution,” Smith said in the letter.
“I have spoken with Secretary-designate Austin multiple times since his nomination, and I am one hundred percent convinced that he understands this crucial principle and that he is completely committed to upholding it.
Austin’s formal Senate Armed Services confirmation hearing is set for Tuesday, Jan. 19.
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