Biden's Pentagon pick puts Democrats in a bind

Biden's Pentagon pick puts Democrats in a bind
© Getty

President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenSchumer vows to advance two-pronged infrastructure plan next month Biden appoints veteran housing, banking regulator as acting FHFA chief Iran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' MORE's selection of a recently departed Army general to lead the Pentagon next year has put House Democrats in a jam.

The Defense Department, by intent and by law, is typically led by a civilian — a division of power that, from the nation's very founding, has aimed to insulate a fragile democracy from any tyrannical designs of the military brass.

Yet Biden's selection of Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on race theory, 'white rage' Top US general downplays Taliban battlefield gains MORE to lead the Defense Department has challenged that conviction. Austin, a four-star Army general who retired in 2016, would need a waiver to be exempted from a law requiring military figures to be out of active duty for at least seven years before they're eligible to lead the Pentagon.


That additional hurdle is creating a headache for many Democrats, who will have to vote on the waiver before the nomination goes to the Senate for final approval.

"It's more than just a little wrinkle, that's for sure," said Rep. Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeDemocratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack US files first trade complaint against Mexico over tampered union vote at GM plant NC House ending remote voting for lawmakers MORE (D-Mich.).

Not only do most Democrats support the traditional concept of a civilian-run Pentagon, but they also overwhelmingly opposed a similar waiver nearly four years ago for President TrumpDonald TrumpIran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' Ivanka Trump, Kushner distance themselves from Trump claims on election: CNN Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum MORE's first Defense secretary, James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs MORE, a retired four-star Marine general.

Those dynamics have put Democrats in a bind. On one hand, they want to support Biden's Cabinet picks across the board and kick-start the new administration absent any dramatic internal clashes. On the other, they want to send a warning — if only to future presidents — that granting waivers to newly departed military figures should be the anomaly, not the trend.

While no one believes Democrats would block Austin's ascension, many lawmakers are also sending early signals that they won't be a rubber stamp, either.

"The civil-military relationship is one that needs to be separate, and it is one where civilians need to be in the lead. That's the custom. That's the tradition. It's worked," said Rep. Rick LarsenRichard (Rick) Ray LarsenNewest Boeing 737 Max takes first test flight Democrats seek answers from Boeing, FAA after production issues with 737 Max, Dreamliner jets Democrats debate fast-track for infrastructure package MORE (D-Wash.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "The president-elect is making the case, but they're going to need to continue to make the case about why we should grant a waiver."


Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack The tale of the last bipartisan unicorns MORE (D-Wash.), chairman of the Armed Services panel, voiced similar concerns. While he characterized Austin as "very highly qualified," Smith also emphasized the need for the retired general to appear before the committee to make his own case for a waiver.

"If we have to vote, we need reassurances from the nominee about the issues that we're concerned about. And one of the issues that we're concerned about is civilian control of the military," Smith said.

"Secretary Mattis certainly showed that just because he's a general doesn't mean that he won't respect civilian control," he continued. "But we need to hear from Gen. Austin about his views on the matter and give us a chance to express our concerns."

The debate over Austin's future arrives as Democrats are engaged in a broader discussion about the composition of Biden's incoming Cabinet — a conversation that's focused heavily on the importance of compiling a diverse team across lines of race, gender and ideology.

Against that backdrop, Austin is a historic pick: He would be the nation's first Black Defense secretary. And some liberals said that, while they're generally inclined to oppose waivers for the top Pentagon post, the history-making element surrounding Austin's nomination is driving their decision to make an exception in his case.

"Race," said Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaTech antitrust bills create strange bedfellows in House markup Democrats fear they are running out of time on Biden agenda Public option fades with little outcry from progressives MORE (D-Calif.), "has to be a consideration."

"I'm opposed to waivers, generally, and I voted against Mattis. But I don't see how we can give Mattis a waiver and [four] years later deny the first African American who's going to lead the Pentagon the same opportunity, especially when he's one of the most qualified generals," said Khanna, a prominent member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

"I don't like doing it — and probably won't do it again — but in this case I'll support it," he added.

Khanna is hardly alone. While 150 House Democrats had opposed the Mattis waiver in 2017 — versus 36 who supported it — a number of those "no" votes are also lining up now in support of Austin.

The reasons are as varied as the lawmakers themselves.

Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthDemocrats fear they are running out of time on Biden agenda Democrats shift tone on unemployment benefits The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters MORE (D-Ky.) said the shift is based largely on the trust Democrats have in Biden — a former longtime senator and vice president with decades of experience dealing with the Pentagon — versus their faith in Trump, who had no previous government or military involvement. Biden has also worked directly with Austin, who led U.S. Central Command under the Obama administration.

"It's a tough one," Yarmuth said. "But the difference now is that I think you have a commander in chief who understands the basic need for civilian control — and may exert that himself."

"Trump had no clue what the relationship was supposed to be," he added.

The issue of testifying before Congress was also a factor in Mattis's appointment in 2017, when the Trump transition team refused to allow the former Marine general to appear on Capitol Hill before the vote on his waiver. That refusal incensed a number of lawmakers. Still, a number of House Democrats who voted against the Mattis waiver are indicating they'll change their tune for Austin based on his willingness to testify.

"If Austin is willing to go through that process, and perhaps provide some assurance, that may affect the way we deal with it," Kildee said.

Biden, for his part, acknowledged the controversy surrounding his Pentagon pick, who would be just the third Defense secretary appointed by waiver in the nation's history, after Mattis and George C. Marshall in 1950. In an essay in The Atlantic this week, Biden praised Austin as a "true and tested" leader uniquely qualified to meet the nation's current challenges.

"Given the immense and urgent threats and challenges our nation faces, he should be confirmed swiftly," Biden urged Congress.

While the message is resonating with some Democrats, others remain wary, voicing frustrations that Biden — who ran his successful campaign on a message of bringing normalcy back to Washington after four chaotic years under Trump — is already breaking norms with his waiver request for Austin.


Rep. Elissa SlotkinElissa SlotkinExclusive: Conservative group targets vulnerable Democrats over abortion Republicans eye Nashville crack-up to gain House seat Democrats seize on GOP opposition to Jan. 6 commission MORE (D-Mich.), a former Pentagon official who has worked with Austin for years, said she has a "deep respect" for the former Army general. But the idea of needing another waiver for the top post so quickly after Mattis "just feels off," she tweeted this week.

It's unclear how Republicans will vote when the waiver hits the House floor. And without some GOP support, Democratic leaders can afford few defections given their razor-thin majority after their drubbing at the polls this year — a dynamic that puts even more pressure on rank-and-file Democrats to back a waiver.

Rep. Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyPublic option fades with little outcry from progressives Online school raises new concerns about cyberbullying Progressives nearly tank House Democrats' Capitol security bill MORE (D-Ill.) acknowledged the charges of hypocrisy likely to rain down on Democrats who opposed Mattis's waiver but choose to back Austin's, as she intends to do. But that shift is nothing, she asserted, relative to the duplicity of GOP leaders who appointed a Supreme Court justice days before this year's elections after ignoring Obama's nomination in 2016, when there was a much longer window to act.

"This doesn't even begin to compare to that kind of hypocrisy," she said.