Dec 18, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Democrats try to tuck Pentagon waiver into spending bill

U.S. Army (retired) General Lloyd Austin speaks after being formally nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Defense

Gen. Lloyd Austin speaks after being formally nominated to be Defense secretary. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Democrats are trying to tuck a waiver allowing retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as President-elect Joe Biden's defense secretary into a year-end government funding bill that must pass by tonight to avoid a shutdown, three sources familiar with the push tell Axios.

Why it matters: Attaching the waiver to the omnibus would give political cover to some Democrats, including at least four on the Senate Armed Services Committee who have already gone on record opposing it.

  • Austin, a four-star Army general who retired in 2016, has not yet been out of uniform for seven years as required by law.
  • If the move succeeds, Austin still would need to win confirmed from a Senate majority, but this would clear a hurdle that has complicated his prospects.

Driving the news: During 11th-hour negotiations Thursday night, while haggling with Republicans over the final details for a coronavirus stimulus bill, Democrats made a bid to add the waiver.

  • They pointed to the 2016 year-end spending legislation, during which Congress provided for an expedited procedure for Trump's first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, also a retired four star general who required a waiver.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was minority leader at the time, slammed that effort, saying, “The American people are entitled to regular order and thoughtful scrutiny of nominees and any potential waivers." But Mattis ultimately received his waiver in 2017, passing 81-17 in the Senate and 268-151 in the House.

What we're hearing: Many Republicans support granting Austin a waiver and recognize the hypocrisy of not doing so. But the GOP rejected Democrats request, saying they want the same process that was given to Mattis: hold hearings on the waiver, committee votes, and floor votes.  

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