President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday urged Congress to grant his newly announced pick for secretary of defense, the retired general Lloyd Austin, the same waiver they did to allow former U.S. Marine commander Jim Mattis to take up the post amid bipartisan opposition to confirming yet another recently retired general.
Austin, who retired in 2016 as a 4-star general, would be the first African-American to lead the Pentagon, but it would require Congress to grant a waiver from a law that bars officers from being appointed secretary of defense within seven years of active duty.
"I hope Congress will grant a waiver to Secretary-designate Austin just as Congress did for Secretary Jim Mattis," Biden wrote in an article for The Atlantic, citing the “immense and urgent threats and challenges our nation faces” as the basis for a swift confirmation.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) – a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who voted against granting the waiver to Mattis, Trump’s first defense secretary – told Politico he would oppose a waiver because civilian control of the military is “essential to our democracy.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) spoke out against a waiver as well, as did Rep. Justin Amash (L-Mich.), Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), and Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), while Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said they were leaning towards opposing it.
Biden asserted that he and Austin both “respect and belief in the importance of civilian control of our military,” adding that Austin “knows that the secretary of defense has a different set of responsibilities than a general officer.” In a rare show of cross-party support, Senate Armed Services Chair Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he would grant a waiver “in a heartbeat,” and Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said he would support it as well.
Austin served four decades in the military after graduating from West Point in 1975, overseeing units in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving as vice chief of staff of the Army, and running U.S. Central Command from 2013 until his retirement in 2016.
Not all Democrats are opposed: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) signaled support for Austin though both voted against a waiver for Mattis, while Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) – who did not vote against Mattis’ waiver – said they would review the pick. “We voted on a waiver for Mattis, and I think we need to do it now,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which supported Austin for the role, said in an MSNBC appearance.
“The threats we face today are not the same as those we faced 10 or even five years ago. We must prepare to meet the challenges of the future, not keep fighting the wars of the past,” Biden wrote. “Lloyd Austin, as part of our diverse national-security leadership team that reflects the lived experiences of all Americans, will be an essential part of this work.”
“[Former Secretary of Defense] George Marshall understood that military training and experience can be inadequate preparation for the political challenges facing a defense secretary,” argued Jim Golby, a former special adviser to Biden and Vice President Mike Pence, in a New York Times op-ed. “President-elect Biden should not put Lloyd Austin, nor any other recently retired general or admiral, in the same position.”
That’s the number of Senate Democrats who voted against granting Mattis the waiver in 2017. The waiver passed the House by a vote of 268 to 151, with all Republicans and 36 Democrats voting for it.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Biden is scheduled to introduce Austin in Wilmington at 2:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, according to guidance from the transition team.