What to watch for in Biden Defense pick's confirmation hearing

What to watch for in Biden Defense pick's confirmation hearing
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President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenJapan to possibly ease COVID-19 restrictions before Olympics 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday China supplies millions of vaccine doses to developing nations in Asia MORE’s pick for Defense secretary, retired Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Biden, Putin agree to launch arms control talks at summit | 2002 war authorization repeal will get Senate vote | GOP rep warns Biden 'blood with be on his hands' without Afghan interpreter evacuation Overnight Defense: Top admiral shoots back at criticism of 'woke' military | Military guns go missing | New White House strategy to battle domestic extremism Top admiral shoots back at criticism of 'woke' military: 'We are not weak' MORE, will face senators Tuesday as he seeks to make history and become the nation’s first Black Pentagon chief.

Austin’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee will take place at a Capitol still reeling from the deadly attack carried out by supporters of President TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Carolina Senate passes trio of election measures 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday Border state governors rebel against Biden's immigration chaos MORE. Biden has urged quick confirmation of his national security nominees, saying the siege underscores the need to have his team in place as close to Inauguration Day as possible.

Even if Austin wins senators over Tuesday, his confirmation is not expected to happen on Day One of Biden’s presidency as he faces additional hurdles related to his status as a recently retired general.


Here are six things to watch at Austin’s confirmation hearing:

Civilian control of the military

One of the biggest obstacles to Austin’s confirmation is that he needs both chambers of Congress to approve a waiver to a law barring recently retired generals from leading the Department of Defense.

The 1947 law is meant to ensure civilian control of the military and has only been waived twice, most recently for 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 in 2017.

Ahead of Austin’s hearing, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard expert testimony on the issue, and three Democrats at the hearing — Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters Democratic patience runs out on bipartisan talks NYC progressives anxiously watch Maya Wiley's ascent MORE (Mass.) and Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthTaiwan reports incursion by dozens of Chinese warplanes Concerns grow over China's Taiwan plans China conducts amphibious landing drill near Taiwan after senators' visit MORE (Ill.) — reiterated they oppose a waiver for Austin.

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedOvernight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Biden taps tech CEO, former destroyer commander to lead Navy Top general: Military justice overhaul proposed by Gillibrand 'requires some detailed study' MORE (R.I.), has expressed openness to the waiver, despite saying he wouldn’t support one again after Mattis.

“The events of the past several months have thrown into sharp relief how perilously close our nation has come to undermining the resilience of our democratic institutions. While not broken, these institutions and principles have been repeatedly subject to extreme stress,” Reed said at the hearing.


“This dire situation calls for stability, and a duly confirmed secretary of defense who has responded to Congress and the confirmation process and will be responsive to Congress as well as the president in the execution of its duties,” he added.

The expert witnesses advised senators to ask Austin questions on how he will empower civilian voices in the department and other steps he plans to take to rebalance decisionmaking back toward civilians after years of bending toward military officers.

Extremism in the ranks

Even before the attack on the Capitol, supporters of Austin were stressing the importance, both symbolic and practical, of having a Black man lead the Pentagon while the military grapples with racism in its ranks.

Much like in the rest of the nation, conversations about race and equality ramped up in the military after the summer’s protests against racial injustice.

Now, the Capitol assault has raised new questions about the extent of extremism and white supremacy in the armed forces after several of the insurrectionists were identified as veterans. At least one person arrested is a current member of the National Guard.

Lawmakers have been pressing Defense Department officials to identify if any active-duty service members were involved in the riot and to take urgent steps to root out extremists.

Expect Austin to get multiple questions Tuesday about his plans to address the issue if he’s confirmed.

Defense contractor ties

Austin is also expected to be peppered with questions about his ties to defense firms and how he will ensure he does not approach weapons programs with a conflict of interest.

Most prominently, Austin is on the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies Corp.

In ethics disclosures, Austin pledged to fully divest from Raytheon within 90 days of being confirmed, as well as to recuse himself from decisions involving the company for a year unless a Pentagon ethics official determines the need for his participation outweighs the perception of a conflict of interest.

The forms also revealed he could earn anywhere from about $800,000 to $1.75 million when he divests his stock in Raytheon and two related companies.

Austin is also a partner at Pine Island Capital Partners, an investment firm that has been buying up small defense contractors.

His ethics disclosure said he has a loan agreement with Pine Island. He will divest his interest in the loan for the original loan amount, “thereby liquidating any rights I may have to any future interest in the company,” he wrote in the ethics form.

Competition with China

Some lawmakers and pundits who have expressed concern about Austin becoming Defense secretary have pointed to his lack of experience on Asia-Pacific issues, something they say will be crucial at a time when China is expected to be one of the biggest focuses in national security.

Critics have also raised questions about whether a retired general will have the policy savvy to navigate Defense Department bureaucracy well enough to push through big changes needed to reorient toward competition with China.

Biden has spoken about the need to work with China where he must — such as a global approach to fighting climate change — but confront Beijing in other matters. But Austin’s military career largely focused on the Middle East, and the public record of his views on China is thin.

Expect senators to press Austin on his plans to shake up Pentagon thinking to prepare for great power competition with China after decades of the military focusing on counterinsurgency in the Middle East.

Trump’s troop posture


If confirmed, Austin would take over the Pentagon after Trump moved to withdraw thousands of troops around the world, and he is sure to get questions on his views on U.S. global military posture.

In Afghanistan, where the Trump administration signed a withdrawal deal with the Taliban, there are now 2,500 U.S. troops, the lowest level since 2001. The U.S.-Taliban agreement calls for a full withdrawal by May, though officials have said the Taliban is not holding up its side of the deal.

The military also drew down to 2,500 troops in Iraq, and it pulled out almost all 700 troops it had in Somalia, though those were mostly redeployed elsewhere in Africa.

Biden has also pledged to end the so-called “forever wars,” but said he would leave a small number of special forces to conduct counterterrorism missions.

Meanwhile, Trump ordered 12,000 U.S. troops to withdraw from Germany, but that move is still in early planning stages and Biden is widely expected to reverse it given his pledge to restore traditional U.S. alliances.

Austin's Centcom career

Austin will likely face questions about his time leading U.S. Central Command (Centcom), which was somewhat rocky.


At a 2015 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, lawmakers tore into Austin after he acknowledged a $500 million program to train moderate Syrian opposition fighters to battle ISIS only produced “four or five” fighters.

At the same hearing, then-Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainFive takeaways from the Biden-Putin summit Meghan McCain: Harris 'sounded like a moron' discussing immigration Arizona AG Mark Brnovich launches Senate challenge to Mark Kelly MORE (R-Ariz.) blasted Austin’s somewhat optimistic testimony about progress in the fight against ISIS as “divorced from the reality.”

There were also allegations when Austin ran Centcom that the command downplayed intelligence about the threat of ISIS and painted a rosier picture of the fight than was accurate. A 2017 inspector general investigation cleared Centcom of wrongdoing on the issue.