Updated Jan 21, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Congress grants waiver for retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to lead Pentagon

Lloyd Austin.
Defense Secretary nominee Lloyd Austin. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Both chambers of Congress on Thursday voted to grant retired Gen. Lloyd Austin a waiver to lead the Pentagon, clearing the path to confirmation for President Biden's nominee for defense secretary.

Why it matters: Austin's nomination received pushback from some lawmakers, including Democrats, who cited a law that requires officers be out of the military for at least seven years before taking the job — a statute intended to reinforce the tradition of civilian control of the Pentagon.

Context: Austin's confirmation would make Biden's administration the second in a row to abandon the tradition, after Gen. James Mattis received the same waiver in 2017 to serve as former President Trump's first defense secretary.

  • At his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Austin said he would "uphold the principle of civilian control of the military," stressing that he knows being a Cabinet secretary "requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform."

The state of play: The House vote approving the waiver came to 326-78, and the Senate vote tally was at 69-27.

  • The Senate Armed Services Committee approved Austin's waiver by voice vote earlier Thursday. Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who previously said he would not agree to another waiver after Mattis' confirmation, cited "historic circumstances" in explaining his reversal.
  • "I backed the waiver for General Mattis in large part because of Donald Trump’s inexperience and temperament and had no intention of supporting another waiver so soon," Reed said. "That rationale seems almost quaint now considering the seismic forces we are currently facing."

The big picture: Austin would be the first Black person to lead the Pentagon. He was the first Black general to command a theater of war in Iraq, first to serve as the commander of U.S. Central Command, and first to hold the title of vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army.

  • Austin's confirmation would help Biden fulfill his pledge to assemble the most diverse Cabinet in U.S. history. Biden has placed an early emphasis on combatting racial inequality, white supremacy and domestic extremism.
  • Austin told lawmakers Wednesday he will rid the military of "racists and extremists."

What to watch via AP: Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the confirmation vote for Austin will take place Friday.

Go deeper: The full slate of Biden's cabinet secretaries

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