Senate confirms Austin to lead Pentagon under Biden

The Senate has approved President Biden’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, paving the way for retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to make history as the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense.

The Senate confirmed Austin in a 93-2 Friday morning vote, giving Biden his second Cabinet member two days after his inauguration. The only no votes came from GOP Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Mike Lee (Utah).

“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense, and I’m especially proud to be the first African American to hold the position,” Austin tweeted after he was confirmed. “Let’s get to work.”

Presidents typically have key national security nominees confirmed on Inauguration Day, but a combination of factors — including the Trump administration delaying the transition, control of the Senate being up in the air until the Georgia runoffs in early January and the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol — meant Biden only got one confirmed on his first day: Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

The Senate could also vote as soon as Friday on Biden’s nominees for secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, but votes have not been scheduled.

Austin had the additional hurdle of needing Congress to approve a waiver allowing him to bypass a law barring recently retired generals from leading the Pentagon.

Under the 1947 law meant to ensure civilian control of the military, Defense secretaries must be out of uniform for at least seven years. Austin retired from the military in 2016.

Citing a confluence of crises including the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers fast-tracked the waiver Thursday, with both chambers of Congress approving it within hours of each other.

Congress has waived the law twice before, first for George Marshall in 1950 and then for James Mattis in 2017.

Lawmakers in both parties had expressed concern that waiving the law again so soon after Mattis would further erode the principle of civilian control of the military. On Thursday, 14 Senate Democrats and 13 Senate Republicans voted against the waiver. In the House, opposition came from 15 Democrats and 63 Republicans.

But Democrats largely coalesced around Austin as a historic pick with the logistics experience necessary to fight the pandemic.

“I will support his historic nomination and believe he will restore direction to a Pentagon that has been left rudderless and adrift for too long under the previous administration,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement announcing his support for Austin despite four years ago pledging to never again approve such a waiver. “His character and integrity are unquestioned and he possesses the knowledge and skill to effectively lead the Pentagon.”

Austin also garnered support from top Republicans, with outgoing Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (Okla.) saying he is “very confident that Lloyd Austin will be a strong, capable civilian leader for the Pentagon at this critical time.”

During his confirmation hearing, Austin sought to blunt any concerns lawmakers had about the waiver, saying he knows the “safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces.”

He also said he would empower civilian leadership under him, pledging to include his under secretary of Defense for policy in key decisionmaking meetings to ensure “strategic and operational decisions are informed by policy.”

Biden has named longtime aide Colin Kahl as his nominee for under secretary for policy.

In the aftermath of the Capitol riot, which has included the arrests of several people with military backgrounds for their alleged involvement, Austin also pledged to root out extremism and white supremacy from the ranks.

“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks,” he said at his confirmation hearing.

Amid the two-day delay in Austin’s confirmation, David Norquist, who was the deputy Defense secretary in the Trump administration, has been serving as acting Defense secretary.

When Austin is sworn into office, he will take over a Pentagon that saw perpetual turnover in top personnel and longtime vacancies during the Trump administration, leaving what critics described as a hollowed out department.

The military has also played a leading role in fighting COVID-19, and Biden has said one of the reasons he nominated Austin was for him to lend logistics expertise to the herculean task of equitably vaccinating hundreds of millions of Americans.

Austin will also be charged with continuing a strategic reorienting toward so-called great power competition with China and Russia after decades of counterterrorism. In his confirmation hearing, he pledged to have a “laser-like focus” on competition with China.

Tags Antony Blinken Avril Haines biden administration Biden cabinet Jack Reed James Mattis Janet Yellen Jim Inhofe Josh Hawley Lloyd Austin Mike Lee

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