Top Senate Democrat backs waiver for Biden Pentagon nominee
The incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee announced Wednesday that he will support President Biden’s pick for Defense secretary, despite warning four years ago he would not support allowing another recently retired general to take the job.
“Lloyd Austin is a decorated leader who has led a distinguished career and is exceptionally qualified,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in a statement released the day of Biden’s inauguration.
“He has demonstrated a clear commitment to civilian control of the military,” Reed added. “I will support his historic nomination and believe he will restore direction to a Pentagon that has been left rudderless and adrift for too long under the previous administration. His character and integrity are unquestioned and he possesses the knowledge and skill to effectively lead the Pentagon.”
Reed’s announcement is unsurprising after he has been signaling in recent weeks he was leaning toward supporting Austin, who would be the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense.
But the strong endorsement from the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee is the latest sign Austin will be able to overcome lingering concerns from some lawmakers and ultimately be confirmed.
Reed’s statement is also notable because four years ago he bluntly stated he would not support another waiver to allow a recently retired general to lead the Pentagon after supporting one for former President Trump’s first Defense secretary, James Mattis.
Under a 1947 law meant to ensure civilian control of the military, Defense secretaries must have been out-of-uniform for at least seven years. Austin retired from the military in mid-2016.
The law has been waived twice before, most recently for Mattis in 2017.
“Waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation,” Reed said after supporting Mattis’s waiver. “Therefore, I will not support a waiver for future nominees. Nor will I support any effort to water down or repeal the statute in the future.”
But in his statement Wednesday, Reed said he believe Austin is the right person to lead the Pentagon amid an “unprecedented set of challenges.”
“I backed the waiver for General Mattis in large part because of Donald Trump’s inexperience and temperament and had no intention of supporting another waiver so soon. That rationale seems almost quaint now considering the seismic forces we are currently facing,” he said.
“We have troops deployed around the world who face life threatening dangers every day and need leadership and stability,” he added. “Our nation is also facing a worsening pandemic and civil unrest. There is no question this confirmation has taken on increased urgency. Joe Biden is working to restore faith and good order in government as he protects the nation and upholds democratic norms. He must have a well-qualified, Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense in place to help him meet complex and volatile national security challenges.”
Austin faced the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, where he sought to assuage any concerns about civilian control of the military under his leadership.
A handful of senators — including Democrats Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Republican Tom Cotton (Ark.) — have announced they will oppose the waiver. But Austin is ultimately expected to be confirmed as senators in both parties have also expressed their support for him, though the Senate has not announced when it will vote on his waiver or nomination.
The House must also approve Austin’s waiver and is scheduled to vote on it Thursday after the House Armed Services Committee holds a closed-door meeting with Austin.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has also come out in strong support for Austin, despite opposing Mattis’s waiver four years ago.
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