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Biden pick for Pentagon cruises through confirmation hearing

Retired Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinCan a common bond of service unite our nation? Politics, not racism or sexism, explain opposition to Biden Cabinet nominees Pentagon releases training materials to address extremism MORE, President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenIntercept bureau chief: minimum wage was not 'high priority' for Biden in COVID-19 relief South Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Obama alum Seth Harris to serve as Biden labor adviser: report MORE’s choice to be Defense secretary, avoided any major missteps at his confirmation hearing Tuesday, setting him on a path to confirmation despite some lingering concerns from lawmakers about a recently retired general leading the Pentagon.

Austin, who would be the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense, sought to blunt any such concerns right away, pledging in his opening statement to ensure strong civilian control of the military.

“Let me say at the outset that I understand and respect the reservations some of you have expressed about having another recently retired general at the head of the Department of Defense,” Austin said.

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“The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces, the subordination of military power to the civil,” he added.

A 1947 law meant to ensure civilian control of the military requires Defense secretaries to be out of uniform for at least seven years before taking the job. Austin retired from the military 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 James MattisJames Norman MattisRejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs The GOP senators likely to vote for Trump's conviction MORE in 2017.

The waiver, which needs approval from both the House and Senate, is seen as Austin’s biggest hurdle to confirmation.

While Austin is expected to ultimately be confirmed, one more senator Tuesday came out in opposition to the waiver.

Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonSenate confirms Rouse as Biden's top economist Scarborough tears into 'Ivy League brats' Cruz, Hawley for attacking 'elites' Judiciary Committee greenlights Garland's AG nomination MORE (R-Ark.), seen as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, said he has come to regret supporting Mattis’s waiver and will vote against Austin’s.

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“Unfortunately, I must announce that I oppose the waiver of the seven-year cooling off period,” Cotton said at the hearing. “My decision reflects not at all on you personally or your record, which I respect. Rather, I believe Congress should no longer grant such waivers at all.”

Three other members of the committee — Democratic Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Health Care: Biden says US will have enough vaccine for all adults by end of May | Biden calls on all states to vaccinate teachers by the end of March | Texas, Mississippi lift mask mandates Biden picks for financial agencies offer preview of regulatory agenda Becerra tells Warren he will do 'thorough review' of executive actions on drug prices MORE (Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 | Kerry presses oil companies to tackle climate change | Biden delays transfer of sacred lands for copper mine Pro-Choice Caucus asks Biden to remove abortion fund restrictions from 2022 budget Duckworth calls for Russian bounties intelligence to be declassified MORE (Ill.) — have previously said they would not support Austin’s waiver.

Unlike Mattis’s confirmation hearing, which ended with the committee voting on his waiver, no vote was taken on Austin’s waiver Tuesday. The panel will next meet Thursday, outgoing Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Tim Kaine moves to claw back war powers authority | Study on sexual harassment and assault in the military Commissioners tasked with scrubbing Confederate base names sworn-in at first meeting Biden seeks to walk fine line with Syria strike MORE (R-Okla.) said at the end of the hearing.

The House must also approve Austin's waiver and is scheduled to vote on it Thursday. The timing means Austin will be the first Defense secretary in decades not confirmed on Inauguration Day.

Austin’s hearing took place under the shadow of a Capitol that is still reeling from an attack earlier this month carried out by supporters of President TrumpDonald TrumpSouth Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Ex-Trump aide Pierson won't run for Dallas-area House seat House Oversight panel reissues subpoena for Trump's accounting firm MORE who were intent on overturning Biden’s victory in the presidential election.

Since the attack, about 25,000 National Guardsmen have been deployed to provide security at Wednesday’s inauguration.

Concerns have also been raised about extremism in the ranks after several veterans were arrested in connection with the insurrection, and 12 guardsmen have been removed from inauguration duties after FBI vetting flagged them.

Several lawmakers asked Austin about his plans to root out extremists. Without delving into specifics, Austin pledged to address the issue. He recounted learning from his time as a lieutenant colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division in 1995, when an investigation found 22 soldiers at Fort Bragg had ties to extremist groups.

“We woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks, and they did bad things that we certainly held them accountable for,” he said. “But we discovered that the signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn't know what to look for or what to pay attention to. But we learned from that.”

Austin was also similarly pressed repeatedly on his plans for addressing sexual assault in the ranks and again pledged to tackle the issue without offering specifics.

“If confirmed I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault and to rid our ranks of racists and extremists and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity,” he said. “The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can't do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”

Austin also faced questions from Warren about his position on the board of directors at major defense contractor Raytheon Technologies Corp. In ethics forms ahead of his confirmation hearing, Austin said he would 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.

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But under Warren’s questioning, Austin pledged to recuse himself for four years and also said he would look for alternatives before seeking an exception to his recusal. He also said he has no plans to become a lobbyist or rejoin a board at a defense contractor after he serves as Defense secretary.

Warren, who has torn into previous Pentagon nominees for their ties to defense contractors, appeared satisfied by Austin’s answers.

“Going above and beyond what federal law requires, as you are doing here, sends a powerful message that you are working on behalf of the American people,” Warren told Austin.

Austin was also peppered with questions about confronting China. Austin’s military career was largely focused on the Middle East, and detractors of his nomination have questioned whether he has the experience to address what is expected to be the biggest national security issue in the coming years.

Austin pledged to be “laser-focused” on remaining competitive with China if he’s confirmed.

“Globally, I understand that Asia must be the focus of our effort, and I see China in particular as a pacing challenge for the department,” he said.

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Austin also said the war in Afghanistan must come to an end, but left open the possibility of leaving U.S. counterterrorism forces in the country.

“In accordance with what the president-elect wants to see, I think we want to see an Afghanistan in the future that does not present a threat to America,” Austin said. “So a focus on some counterterrorism issues, I think in the future ... would be helpful.”

Austin also unequivocally said he supports overturning the Trump administration’s ban on most transgender military service.

“I support the president's plan to overturn the ban,” he said. “I truly believe, senator, as I said in my opening statement, that if you are fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve.”

In perhaps the most fraught exchange of the hearing, Austin briefly tangled with Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerBiden pick for Pentagon cruises through confirmation hearing Push for ,000 stimulus checks hits Senate buzzsaw Overnight Energy: Biden makes historic pick with Haaland for Interior | Biden set to tap North Carolina official to lead EPA | Gina McCarthy forges new path as White House climate lead MORE (R-Neb.) over nuclear policy.

Early in the hearing, Austin said he “personally” supports the nuclear triad, which refers to delivering a nuclear weapon by air, sea or land. But pressed by Fischer on whether he supports ongoing nuclear modernization programs, Austin would only say he needs to review the issue when he’s confirmed, an answer Fischer called “surprising.”

“I understand it's a complicated topic, but it is a 60-year-old, foundational concept that we have here,” Fischer said of the triad.

“I think that we're in agreement that this is a priority, this needs to remain a priority,” Austin replied. “What I was just conveying was specific timelines of which pieces are being resourced at what rate. Those things I would really like to get into details and have a further discussion with you on that. But there's no question that I consider this to be a priority, and it will remain a priority.”