Democrats Praise Austin Even as They Question Waiver He’d Need

Senate Democrats praised Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice for defense secretary, even as some said Tuesday that they won’t vote for the waiver needed to give the post to the retired general.

The mixed sentiment was expressed as the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the law that bars officers from leading the Pentagon within seven years of retiring. General Austin, who resigned from the Army in 2016, would need a waiver just as did General James Mattis, President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary.

“Civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle in our country since its founding,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said. “I believe in this principle deeply. That is why voted against rewriting federal law for Jim Mattis and it is widely the same for Lloyd Austin.”

But Warren added that if Congress backs a waiver for Austin, “I will consider his nomination independently on the merits.”

Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a war veteran, took the same approach as Warren. Although she said she won’t support a waiver, she called Austin “an excellent nominee” and said she will respect “the majority rule of my colleagues” and consider Austin’s “nomination fairly and on its merits.”

It’s a tack that may ensure Senate confirmation of Austin, who would be the first Black defense secretary, provided the waiver gains enough bipartisan support to pass in both chambers of Congress.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the committee’s top Republican, indicated he doesn’t oppose a waiver for Austin but that the committee “must understand why this individual is uniquely qualified, at this point in time, to lead the Department of Defense.”

Jan. 19 Hearing

Austin will have a confirmation hearing before the Senate panel on Jan. 19, a day before Biden’s inauguration. Austin will face the House Armed Services Committee on Jan. 21 to answer questions about the waiver.

“During the four years since the committee last considered such a waiver, the state of civil-military relations has eroded significantly under President Trump, and the Department of Defense is in many cases adrift,” said Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who’s expected to lead the Senate committee once his party takes control of the chamber on Jan. 20.

Reed, who in 2017 pledged that he wouldn’t support another waiver after backing one for Mattis, has softened his position, saying Tuesday that “we will thoroughly review the nomination in the historic context it is being presented and the impact it would have on future generations.”

Lawmakers should be asking Austin how he plans to demonstrate his commitment to empowering the civilian side of the Defense Department and how he plans to foster relationships of trust between civilian and uniformed staff, according to Lindsay Cohn, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

“If this chamber believes that Mr. Austin is going to handle things extremely well, then this chamber could very legitimately come to the conclusion that on balance it is better to give him a waiver and confirm him,” Cohn testified to the Senate panel.

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