US Congress removes hurdle for Biden’s defence secretary pick

Retired Army General Austin on track for Senate confirmation with waiver of civilian rule.

Retired General Lloyd Austin testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to be the next secretary of defense on January 19, 2021 [Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via Reuters]

The United States Congress is moving swiftly to approve President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of defense, retired Army General Lloyd Austin.

The House of Representatives voted 326-78 on Thursday to provide a legal waiver allowing General Austin to become the top US government official overseeing the US military. The Senate approved the waiver shortly afterwards, 69-27.

US law reserves the position of secretary of defense for civilians or persons who have been retired from the military for at least seven years. Austin retired in 2016, fewer than five years ago, triggering the need for a congressional waiver to serve in that post. With the House and Senate votes, the Senate is set to confirm Austin as soon as tonight.

Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, praised Austin as “uniquely” qualified and said the “complex threat environment” facing the US makes it urgent he be installed at the Pentagon quickly.

Austin, who had worked with President Biden on the US troop drawdown in Iraq in 2010, met earlier in the day with members of the Armed Services Committee.

In “a very, very successful briefing”, Austin demonstrated respect for the oversight role of Congress and “genuine” interest in answering questions from members of the House, Smith said.

Both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress have been concerned about the Trump administration’s management of the Defense Department and the military, placing some urgency on Austin’s confirmation.

Austin would replace former acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller who had been the fourth unconfirmed Trump official in the role since former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in 2018 in a dispute with Trump.

“The disruption that President Trump brought to the Pentagon cannot be underestimated. The disruption has been enormous,” Smith said.

“They need a fully confirmed secretary of defense to begin to clean up the mess at the Pentagon,” he said.

Retired US General Lloyd Austin was named by President-elect Joe Biden to become defence secretary on December 9, 2020 [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

In the Senate, the Armed Services Committee approved the waiver for Austin and his confirmation earlier on Thursday.

Speaking to the full Senate, Dan Sullivan, a Republican, threw his support strongly behind Austin. The two had served together in Iraq and Sullivan had seen Austin at work in a command role.

“What I saw was respect and integrity, and someone who knows how to get things done in a difficult environment,” Sullivan said in remarks to the Senate.

“We are living through difficult times, pandemic, racial tensions, riots, turmoil at the top of the Pentagon, and rising dangers from China, Russia, and Iran,” Sullivan said.

Austin “represents the best of America, a man of integrity, humility, and character with a wealth of relevant experience,” Sullivan said.

Austin, 67, came from humble beginnings in his hometown of Thomasville, Georgia, to graduate from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1975.

He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and rose through the ranks to become the head of the US Central Command in 2013 overseeing US forces in the Middle East.

He retired at the rank of four-star general after 41 years in the military. Once confirmed, Austin would be the first African American to become secretary of defense.

In the private sector, Austin served on the boards of directors of defence contractor Raytheon and steelmaker Nucor, which is a supplier to two major Pentagon contractors, Oshkosh Defense and Huntington Ingalls.

Representative Peter Meijer, a freshman Republican, was among those who voted against the waiver, saying it was important to maintain civilian control over the military.

“We can’t let the exception become the rule at the end of the day,” Meijer said, noting that former Secretary Mattis had also required a waiver of the civilian rule.

The Senate is moving quickly to confirm Austin and several of Biden’s cabinet nominees, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday.

“With the cooperation of our Republican colleagues, we can ensure confirmation of secretaries of Defense, State, Homeland Security and Treasury without much delay,” Schumer said.

The Senate voted 84-16 on Wednesday to confirm former CIA Deputy Director Avril Haines as the first woman to be Director of National Intelligence, the top spy job in the US government.

The nominations of Secretary of State-designate Anthony Blinken and Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen are pending.

Biden’s nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas to be secretary of homeland security has drawn opposition from some Republicans including Senator Josh Hawley who has objected to a swift confirmation for Mayorkas.

Source: Al Jazeera

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