WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate voted 69-27 Thursday to approve a waiver allowing retired Army General Lloyd Austin to serve as Joe Biden’s secretary of defense, putting him one step closer to confirmation despite not meeting the usual requirement of being out of the military seven years or longer.
The exemption, passed by the House earlier in the day, paves the way for Austin to become the first Black leader of the Defense Department.
Austin is only four years into his retirement from a 40-year stint in the Army, and federal law says defense secretaries need to be seven years out of active duty before assuming their posts. But the House’s 326-78 vote Thursday followed by the Senate’s approval of the waiver puts Austin another step closer to assuming the role. His confirmation vote could come as early as Thursday night.
The waiver was backed by 15 former defense secretaries, deputies and other officials. It won the support of Senate Republicans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Texas Senator John Cornyn, while a few Democrats voted against it, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal.
While the Senate’s afternoon vote was a roll call without deliberation, the House held a lengthy debate on Austin’s waiver earlier Thursday.
All original members of the faction of progressive Democrats known as the Squad – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley – voted against the measure, along with the group’s two newly elected members, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. More than 60 Republicans also voted against it, including Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
But most House members were supportive of Austin’s waiver and his nomination was backed from lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Georgia Republican Buddy Carter spent time outlining Austin’s military service, noting was responsible for leading troops into Iraq in the early 2000s.
Carter said he had reservations about continuing to issue waivers for nominees to the position, after the House did the same for Donald Trump’s nomination of General Jim Mattis, but ultimately concluded Austin’s service and assignments were a reflection of his career success.
“If confirmed it is my hope that General Austin will carry out his commitment to civilian control of the Department of Defense and advocate for the priorities essential to national security,” Carter said.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith controlled the debate time for Democrats, and said members should ask themselves three questions when considering their vote on Austin’s waiver: does the nominee understand the importance of civilian military control, is there something about him that makes the the waiver important, and is he qualified?
In Smith’s view, all three of those criteria had been met by the former division commander of the U.S. Central Command. Smith said Austin delivered a two-hour presentation to the Armed Services Committee that made clear his keen understanding of the issues facing the defense secretary and demonstrated “the intelligence necessary to deal with them.”
Lawmakers also said having a Black leader of the Defense Department is essential to addressing the military’s diversity issues. The U.S. an enormous problem with white supremacy that needs to be addressed, Smith said, and Austin’s nomination would help prevent that toxin from seeping further into the ranks.
“Now let me be perfectly clear: I have 100% confidence in our military, but this is an issue that they do need to address,” Smith said. “Having a highly qualified African American be secretary of defense will be an enormous step towards addressing that problem.”
Similar sentiments denouncing white supremacy were parroted by a number of Democrats. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Austin would be a bridge between those in the racial majority and minority within the military, adding Biden had such trust in Austin in part because of his time serving with his late son Beau.
Maryland Democrat Anthony Brown also said Austin’s nomination is more than “a symbolic milestone towards genuine integration” of the Pentagon and is a substantive answer to challenges the military faces, including rooting out white supremacy.