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Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee

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

The Senate has approved a waiver allowing retired Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Biden called off second military target in Syria minutes before strike: report Republicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal MORE to serve as President Biden’s Defense secretary, removing the final obstacle before the upper chamber votes on his confirmation.

The Senate’s 69-27 vote to approve the waiver Thursday afternoon comes shortly after the House easily passed the waiver in its own 326-78 vote.

It also comes just hours after the Senate Armed Services Committee advanced both the waiver and Austin’s nomination to the Senate floor.

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The Senate still must vote on Austin’s actual confirmation, which is scheduled for Friday. 

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

Some lawmakers in both parties initially expressed concerns about granting Austin a waiver, particularly so soon after doing so 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, former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE’s first Defense secretary.

Austin 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.

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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.

Austin received an additional boost Wednesday after the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedOvernight 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 CORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report MORE (D-R.I.), announced his support for Austin, despite saying four years ago he would not support another recently retired general after Mattis.

Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Biden called off second military target in Syria minutes before strike: report Republicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal MORE is a decorated leader who has led a distinguished career and is exceptionally qualified,” Reed 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.”

The waiver hurdles left Biden without a Senate-confirmed Defense secretary on Day One of his presidency, a break with tradition. 

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But Democrats sought to move the process along as quickly as possible after Inauguration Day, saying multiple crises including the COVID-19 pandemic demand that Biden has his team in place.

Democrats also rallied around Austin, who would be the first Black secretary of Defense if confirmed by the Senate, as a historic choice.

Still, some Democrats announced ahead of the vote they would oppose the waiver out of concern about the principle of civilian control of the military, including Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPhilly city council calls on Biden to 'cancel all student loan debt' in first 100 days Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case Senators question Bezos, Amazon about cameras placed in delivery vans MORE (Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthDuckworth, Norton call for improved accessibility for the blind at FDR memorial Bipartisan group of senators introduces bill to rein in Biden's war powers Rosen to lead Senate Democrats' efforts to support female candidates MORE (Ill.).

All three opposed Mattis’s waiver in 2017, and they were joined Thursday by nine other Democrats who also opposed Mattis’s waiver, as well as one Democrat who supported Mattis’s waiver, Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoRosen to lead Senate Democrats' efforts to support female candidates OVERNIGHT 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 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Mars rover prepares for landing MORE (Nev.). Sen. Jacky RosenJacklyn (Jacky) Sheryl RosenRosen to lead Senate Democrats' efforts to support female candidates Democratic senator demands Rand Paul wear a mask on Senate floor Overnight Defense: New START extended for five years | Austin orders 'stand down' to tackle extremism | Panel recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal MORE (D-Nev.), who voted against Mattis as a House member in 2017, also voted against Austin's waiver Thursday.

But five other Democrats who opposed Mattis’s waiver -- Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinWhat's worse, violence on the left or the right? It's a dangerous question Garland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks National Sheriffs' Association backs Biden pick for key DOJ role MORE (Ill.), Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyFirst Black secretary of Senate sworn in Press: The big loser: The Republican Party Senate acquits Trump in 57-43 vote MORE (Vt.), Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyBiden reignites war powers fight with Syria strike Gun violence prevention groups optimistic background check legislation can pass this Congress Democrats reintroduce gun sale background check legislation MORE (Conn.), Bernie Sander (I-Vt.) and Tom UdallTom UdallOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland courts moderates during tense confirmation hearing | GOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change | White House urges passage of House public lands package Udalls: Haaland criticism motivated 'by something other than her record' Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (N.M.) -- supported Austin’s waiver.

Republican Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonRepublicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers face Capitol threat as senators line up votes for relief bill Garland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks MORE (Ark.), who is seen as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, also announced this week he would oppose the waiver, saying he has come to regret supporting Mattis’s waiver and that “under no foreseeable circumstances can I imagine supporting such a waiver again."

Cotton was joined in opposition to the waiver Thursday by other potential 2024 GOP hopefuls, including Sens. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyCrenshaw pours cold water on 2024 White House bid: 'Something will emerge' Garland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks The Memo: Is Trump mounting a comeback — or finally fading? MORE (Mo.) and Ben SasseBen SasseSenators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China Garland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks Republicans, please save your party MORE (Neb.).

In total, 13 Republicans voted against Austin's waiver after no Republicans opposed Mattis’s waiver in 2017. Some moderate Republicans such as Sen. Susans Collins (R-Maine) voted against Austin’s waiver Thursday.

Updated 6:35 p.m.