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House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee

House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee
© Greg Nash

The House on Thursday approved a waiver allowing retired Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinPentagon chief backs change to military sexual assault prosecution Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs warn against sweeping reform to military justice system | Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal | National Guard may have 'training issues' if not reimbursed Joint Chiefs warn against sweeping reform to military justice system MORE to serve as Defense secretary, bringing President Biden’s nominee to lead the Pentagon one step closer to confirmation.

Austin, who retired from the military in 2016, needs the waiver because of a 1947 law that requires Defense secretaries to be out-of-uniform for at least seven years. Both chambers of Congress need to approve the waiver.

The House approved the measure in a 326-78 vote, with opposition from 15 Democrats and 63 Republicans.

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Lawmakers in both parties initially expressed concern that granting a waiver for Austin would further erode the principle of civilian control of the military, particularly so soon after Congress granted a similar waiver 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, former President TrumpDonald TrumpGuardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa wins GOP primary in NYC mayor's race Garland dismisses broad review of politicization of DOJ under Trump Schumer vows next steps after 'ridiculous,' 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster MORE’s first Defense secretary.

Most Democrats have since rallied around Austin, who would be the first Black secretary of Defense if confirmed by the Senate.

Still, the intra-party debate over Austin’s waiver dominated an hourlong call among House Democrats on Thursday morning. A handful of Democrats expressed “great consternation” about normalizing military leaders running the Pentagon.

“There were universal accolades for the man but a concern about the precedent it sets,” said one House Democrat on the call.

A day after attending Biden’s inauguration, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi quashes reports on Jan. 6 select committee Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs warn against sweeping reform to military justice system | Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal | National Guard may have 'training issues' if not reimbursed On The Money: Powell says pickup in job gains likely this fall | Schumer, Pelosi meeting with White House on infrastructure MORE (D-Calif.) defended his top Pentagon pick. She told rank-and-file members of the House Democratic caucus that she understood their qualms about the waiver, noting that many Democrats voted against Mattis’s waiver four years ago not because they disliked him but because the Trump administration did not allow him to brief or testify before the House.

On the call, Pelosi argued Austin is the right person for the moment and that party unity during the first votes of the new Biden administration is important, sources on the call said.

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“Gen. Austin is a highly qualified and well-respected leader with over 40 years of decorated service. He brings a great understanding of the challenges facing our nation's defenses and the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform and their families,” Pelosi later told reporters. “Once the waiver is approved, I feel confident that the Senate will confirm the general as secretary of Defense.”

The House Armed Services Committee heard from Austin before Thursday’s vote, but it happened behind closed doors after the panel canceled a public hearing with him.

The committee blamed procedural issues for the cancellation of Thursday’s hearing and said it would instead hold a less formal closed-door roundtable ahead of the vote.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithDemocratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack The tale of the last bipartisan unicorns Congress must stop the march toward war with China MORE (D-Wash.), who has been lobbying his colleagues to support the waiver, defended Austin’s transparency Thursday despite the meeting taking place behind closed doors.

“Secretary-designate Austin understands that some members had reservations about his nomination given the need for a waiver, and his willingness to have an open dialogue with Congress is a testament to the kind of leader he is and will be once his historic confirmation is complete,” Smith said in a statement, adding on the House floor later that Austin spent two hours answering the committee’s questions.

Austin also sought to blunt any lingering concerns lawmakers had about granting the waiver during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, 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.

“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.

Some Republicans who four years ago supported Mattis now oppose Austin’s waiver. Last week, the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus that counts most GOP lawmakers as members, announced its opposition to the waiver, arguing it would set a “new dangerous precedent.”

Republicans also complained about the cancellation of Austin’s hearing in the House, trading accusations with Democrats about whether the majority party circumvented regular order or whether Republicans were to blame because they have not officially appointed committee members yet.

“If we change the law today, we will now have done so twice within four years, effectively destroying the historical precedent against such exemptions,” Rep. Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherBiden budget includes 0M to help agencies recover from SolarWinds hack in proposed budget GOP lawmaker calls for Wuhan probe to 'prevent the next pandemic' Lawmakers introduce bill to protect critical infrastructure against cyberattacks MORE (R-Wis.), who supported Mattis’s waiver, said ahead of Thursday’s vote on Austin.

“And as in 2017, we will be granting this exemption without a public hearing of the Armed Services Committee, which is the bare minimum of our constitutional obligations. We will be getting rolled over, to borrow a phrase that was used four years ago.”

The Senate must still approve the waiver before it votes on Austin’s confirmation. Both votes could happen as soon as Thursday.

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved both Austin’s nomination and the waiver earlier Thursday, sending them to the Senate floor for the full chamber’s approval.

The committee approved both by voice vote, meaning objections were not officially recorded. But at least four committee members previously said they would oppose the waiver: Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate to vote on elections bill Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda Progressives fear nightmare scenario over voting rights assault 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.) and Republican Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonSenate Republicans: Newly proposed ATF rules could pave way for national gun registry Jon Stewart shows late-night conformity cabal how political comedy is done The Hill's Morning Report - After high-stakes Biden-Putin summit, what now? MORE (Ark.).

Scott Wong contributed.