Defense

Conservative caucus opposes waiver for Biden’s Pentagon pick

A bloc of House conservatives is opposing a waiver that would allow President-elect Joe Biden’s Defense secretary nominee to bypass a law barring recently retired generals from holding the civilian job.

In a memo its members and staff released Thursday, the Republican Study Committee, which counts most GOP lawmakers as members, argued granting a waiver for retired Gen. Lloyd Austin so soon after Congress granted one to President Trump’s first Defense secretary, James Mattis, would set a “new dangerous precedent.”

“Furthermore, regardless of the ‘waiver,’ Gen. Austin is not the right person for the job of secretary of Defense,” the memo added. “He lacks civilian experience, has no experience in countering China, and has a track record of failures as the [Central Command] head in Syria and Iraq and in the war on ISIS. For all of these reasons, conservatives should not vote to grant a ‘waiver’ for Gen. Austin.”

Under a 1947 law meant to ensure civilian control of the military, Defense secretaries must be retired from the military for at least seven years before they can take the job. Austin retired in mid-2016.

But Congress can approve a waiver to the law to allow someone within the cooling off period to lead the Pentagon and has done so twice: first for George Marshall in 1950 and then for Mattis in 2017.

In 2017, one House Republican voted against Mattis’s waiver.

But after Biden named Austin as his pick for Defense secretary, some Republicans said they regret supporting a waiver for Mattis, including current Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks (R-Ind.).

“Based on the lessons learned after the House made the unprecedented move of granting a waiver four years ago, the Republican Study Committee will oppose granting General Austin a waiver,” the caucus said in a statement Thursday.

The Republican Study Committee’s position is not binding on its members, and Republican opposition alone would not sink Austin’s waiver in the House.

But with Democrats holding a slim majority in the House, Republicans opposing Austin en mass would leave little room for error in uniting Democrats around the pick.

Some Democrats have expressed a wariness to granting Austin waiver, but few have explicitly said they would vote against it. Most House Democrats opposed Mattis’s waiver after Trump would not let him testify before the House Armed Services Committee prior to the vote.

But some Democrats who voted against Mattis have said they will support Austin’s waiver, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

In addition to not wanting to stymie Biden’s agenda by blocking his nominees, Democrats are concerned about blocking someone who would be the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense.

The House Armed Services Committee is expected to hold a hearing Jan. 21 for Austin to testify about the waiver.

The Senate Armed Committee heard expert testimony on the waiver on Tuesday and is scheduled to hold Austin’s confirmation hearing this coming Tuesday.

Tags Adam Smith Donald Trump James Mattis Joe Biden Lloyd Austin

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