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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 AustinBiden to host Afghan president at White House on Friday Biden struggles to detail post-withdrawal Afghanistan plans Overnight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine 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 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 TrumpMaria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' The Memo: The center strikes back Republicans eye Nashville crack-up to gain House seat 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 ReedGillibrand: Military must make changes beyond sexual assault cases Overnight 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 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 AustinBiden to host Afghan president at White House on Friday Biden struggles to detail post-withdrawal Afghanistan plans Overnight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine 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. 

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 WarrenThe Memo: The center strikes back Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Democrats have turned solidly against gas tax MORE (Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) 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.).

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 MastoDemocrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal Past criticism of Trump becomes potent weapon in GOP primaries Infighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms MORE (Nev.). Sen. Jacky RosenJacklyn (Jacky) Sheryl RosenSenate passes resolution condemning recent rise in antisemitic attacks Progressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema Infighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms 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 DurbinOvernight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 COVID-19 long-haulers press Congress for paid family leave Joe Manchin keeps Democrats guessing on sweeping election bill MORE (Ill.), Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyShelby signals GOP can accept Biden's .5T with more for defense Bipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua Biden budget expands government's role in economy MORE (Vt.), Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyCongress barrels toward debt cliff End the practice of hitting children in public schools Public option fades with little outcry from progressives MORE (Conn.), Bernie Sander (I-Vt.) and Tom UdallTom UdallSenate Democrats befuddled by Joe Manchin Study: Chemical used in paint thinners caused more deaths than EPA identified Oregon senator takes center stage in Democratic filibuster debate MORE (N.M.) -- supported Austin’s waiver.

Republican Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonJon Stewart shows late-night conformity cabal how political comedy is done The Hill's Morning Report - After high-stakes Biden-Putin summit, what now? Court fines baker 0 for refusing to make gender transition cake 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 HawleyGOP divided over bills targeting tech giants Pence heckled with calls of 'traitor' at conservative conference Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision MORE (Mo.) and Ben SasseBen SasseGOP senators applaud Biden for global vaccine donation plans Pence: Trump and I may never 'see eye to eye' on events of Jan. 6 White House: Biden will not appoint presidential Jan. 6 commission 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.