Top Senate panel approves Austin, paving the way for confirmation as Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin’s nomination for defense secretary took a big step forward on Capitol Hill on Thursday, as the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the nominee and a waiver for the retired Army general to take the job as he speeds toward a confirmation vote later in the day.

The full Senate is expected to confirm Austin, who would be the first Black defense secretary, following the panel’s vote on the nomination and the waiver. The move is part of an overall push by the White House and congressional Democrats to get President Joe Biden’s national security picks on the job as soon as possible.

Senate Armed Services approved the waiver in a recorded vote and approved his nomination by voice vote, according to a committee Republican spokesperson. The move reflected bipartisan support for Austin ahead of a vote in the full Senate, despite doubters in both parties who are concerned by the retired four-star general’s nomination.

The vote tally wasn’t immediately announced.

Austin, who retired in 2016, requires a waiver to the law that he be out of uniform for seven years before becoming Pentagon chief. Congress also granted a waiver for retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis to run the Defense Department under former President Donald Trump.

The waiver must pass the House and Senate, in addition to a Senate confirmation vote.

The House is set to vote on the waiver Thursday afternoon. Austin is set to brief the House Armed Services Committee behind closed doors ahead of the vote.

The selection of a second four-star general in four years to lead the Pentagon has upset lawmakers in both parties who’ve raised concerns about further eroding the already precarious tenet of civilian control of the military.

The closed-door House briefing replaced a planned public hearing with Austin on civilian control of the military. Despite the lack of a public airing, Democrats have expressed confidence that a waiver will pass without incident.

House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has been pushing Democrats to back a waiver in recent days, and privately expressed confidence that a solid number of Republicans will support the measure.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also leaned on Democrats to back Biden’s pick on a caucus call Thursday morning.

“Can you give the President of the United States the benefit of the doubt?” Pelosi asked members, according to Democrats on the call.

Austin has also garnered the support of new Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. Several Senate Armed Services members in both parties, however, have telegraphed that they won’t support a waiver — including Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Democrats Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

But Austin largely cruised through a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, pledging to empower civilian voices at the Pentagon, respond to congressional oversight and extend the terms of his ethics agreement that bars him from making decisions that affect defense contractor Raytheon Technologies, where he was a board member.

Heather Caygle and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.


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