Dec 9, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Democratic opposition mounts to Biden picking retired general to lead Pentagon

Army General Lloyd Austin III
Army Gen. Lloyd Austin at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in March 2016. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

More Democratic lawmakers are speaking out against President-elect Joe Biden's nomination of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as his defense secretary, citing the long-running precedent of the National Security Act, which requires civilian control at the Pentagon.

The big picture: Traditional Biden allies have put his team on notice that Austin is not guaranteed the congressional waiver that he needs to serve, since he hasn't been retired from active duty for the requisite seven years.

  • Biden's administration would be the second to forgo civilian control of the Defense Department, after President Trump selected Gen. James Mattis to lead the Pentagon in 2017.
  • Jen Psaki, Biden's future press secretary, wrote a series of tweets in defense of Austin's nomination on Tuesday evening, after some Democratic lawmakers had spoken out. She insisted that both Biden and Austin "believe in strong and empowered civilian voices" shaping Pentagon policy alongside military leaders.

What they're saying:

  • Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement: "I think the burden of proof is on the administration and it also comes down ultimately to the quality of the nominee."
    • He said that Austin "should have an opportunity to talk about his vision" for the Pentagon, but added, "I think the preference would be for someone who is not recently retired."
    • Reed voted reluctantly in favor of granting Mattis a waiver in 2017 and said he would oppose waivers for future nominees.
  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq War veteran, called Austin an "excellent" and "very capable" candidate, but told MSNBC on Wednesday, "I will not vote for the waiver. I believe very strongly there needs to be civilian control, civilian oversight of the military."
  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who voted against the waiver for Mattis to serve as Trump's defense secretary, told Politico on Tuesday that he would not support a waiver for Austin to serve.
  • Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said that he did not like the "trend" on circumventing civilian control of the Defense Department, but noted that it would be difficult for him to oppose a waiver for Austin.
  • Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) tweeted that she had "deep respect" for Austin after she worked with him in his various roles as former commander of U.S. Central Command and vice chief of staff of the army, but that "choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role designed for a civilian just feels off."
  • Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a statement that he has "great respect" for Austin but plans "to closely evaluate the implications for waiving the National Security Act requirement twice in just four years."
  • Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mt.) told reporters on Tuesday: “I didn’t [vote] for Mattis, and I don’t think I will for him," though he added that Austin would likely be a good defense secretary.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told CNN that she opposes a waiver for Gen. Austin, citing her previous opposition to approving a waiver for Mattis: "I don't think we ought to be doing these waivers."

The other side: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who voted against Mattis' waiver in 2017, told NBC's Katy Tur on Tuesday that his inclination is to support a waiver for Austin to take on the role.

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cali.) issued a statement in support of Austin as "a highly qualified and widely respected leader" on Tuesday, and said Democrats looked forward to working with him.
  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was non-committal when asked by reporters about Austin's nomination on Wednesday, saying: "I'm gonna have to study that." He added that Austin is "a very good nominee and we'll figure out where to go from there," per AP.
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