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Lloyd Austin. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s plan to nominate retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as Defense secretary will set off an explosive fight in the Democratic Party about civilian control of the military.

Why it matters: Many Democrats have been horrified by what they saw as politicization and the erosion of civilian control of the military under President Trump, and they put the Biden team on notice that Austin wouldn't be guaranteed the congressional waiver he needs to serve.

“Waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation,” Sen. Jack Reed, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, said when retired Gen. James Mattis was confirmed as Pentagon chief in 2017. “Therefore, I will not support a waiver for future nominees.”

  • A person familiar with the matter said there have been "early consultations" with lawmakers on the waiver issue, and the transition is aware it's a hurdle they need to clear.

Be smart: Austin also sits on the board of defense contractor Raytheon, which could also be problematic for some Democratic senators.

The backstory: Austin, a retired four-star general who once headed Centcom, needs a waiver because he has not been out of uniform for more than seven years.

  • In the 73-year history of the law requiring them, Congress has passed only two waivers.
  • The Senate approved Mattis's 81-17, with 16 Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders voting against it.
  • In the House, the vote was closer, 268-151, with only 36 Democrats supporting it.
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who voted nay, was as clear as Reed: “Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule."

The alarm about Trump's military man-handling culminated with Trump’s walk from the White House to St. John’s Church, after the National Guard had cleared the area of protestors.

Some lawmakers had advocated for other candidates right up to the news of Austin's selection. The announcement also cheered their critics.

  • House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith told reporters that Michèle Flournoy was "hands down the most qualified person" for the job. In 2017, Smith voted against the waiver for Mattis.
  • Code Pink, the anti-war advocacy group, took to Twitter to claim “victory” for sinking Flournoy’s candidacy.
  • It warned: “Get ready, Gen. Austin. We’re coming for you.”

The bottom line: Picking an African American to lead the Pentagon will give Biden more leeway in picking a white person to serve as his attorney general.

  • Sally Yates, Sen. Doug Jones and former Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland are all possibilities. 

Go deeper

Senate confirms retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as defense secretary

Photo: Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

The Senate voted 93-2 on Friday to confirm retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) were the sole "no" votes.

Why it matters: Austin is the first Black American to lead the Pentagon and President Biden's second Cabinet nominee to be confirmed.

Dave Lawler, author of World
Jan 22, 2021 - World

Lloyd Austin's first call as defense secretary goes to NATO

Austin during his confirmation hearing. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images

Lloyd Austin's first call after being confirmed as defense secretary on Friday went to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the retired general announced on Twitter.

Why it matters: Former President Trump took office four years ago questioning NATO's relevance and value to the United States. President Biden and his team are sending just the opposite signal, with Austin emphasizing America's "steadfast commitment" to the alliance and signing off with "#WeAreNATO."

Stark reminder for America's corporate leaders

Rosalind "Roz" Brewer is about to become only the second Black woman to permanently lead a Fortune 500 company. She starts as Walgreens CEO on March 15.

Why it matters: It's a stark reminder of how far corporate America's top decision-makers have to go during an unprecedented push by politicians, employees and even a stock exchange to diversify their top ranks.