Defense

Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee

The Senate has approved a waiver allowing retired Gen. Lloyd Austin 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.

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 Mattis, former President Trump'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.

"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 Reed (D-R.I.), announced his support for Austin, despite saying four years ago he would not support another recently retired general after Mattis.

"Lloyd Austin 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 Warren (Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Tammy Duckworth (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 Masto (Nev.). Sen. Jacky Rosen (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 Durbin (Ill.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Bernie Sander (I-Vt.) and Tom Udall (N.M.) -- supported Austin's waiver.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (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 Hawley (Mo.) and Ben Sasse (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.

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