Senate Confirms First Black Defense Secretary

The confirmation vote comes a day after Congress passed a waiver allowing Lloyd Austin to serve in the role despite being recently retired from active military duty.     

Lloyd Austin, a recently retired Army general, speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of defense overwhelmingly won confirmation in the Senate on Friday, making retired Army General Lloyd Austin the first Black head of the Pentagon.

The 93-2 vote comes after Congress approved a waiver for Austin on Thursday that allows him to take the job despite not being out of active duty for seven years or longer, as federal law requires. He is only four years into his retirement from a 40-year stint in the Army, but the waiver was supported by lawmakers on both sides. It cleared the Senate by a 69-27 vote and the House by a 326-78 vote.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer lauded Austin’s historic nomination on Friday.

“Lloyd Austin is the right person for the job,” the New York Democrat said. “He has the experience, the vision and the competence to run the largest agency in our government.”

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also touted Austin’s accomplishments Friday after voting in favor of the general’s waiver the day before. The Kentucky Republican said he backed Austin’s nomination because he is “clearly qualified, and because presidents should get real latitude” when picking their Cabinet.  

“I’ll vote today to confirm a clear patriot with an impressive career,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “But I’ll cast that vote with the understanding that our new secretary of defense specifically commits to balancing civil-military relations, empowering civilian leaders at the Pentagon and playing an active role in the inherently political budget process to get our forces what they need.”

The only two senators who voted against Austin’s confirmation were Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Lee of Utah, both Republicans.

After the vote, Senator Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, said his support for Austin came from their time serving together as active-duty military members. But Sullivan also said the general’s exceptional character, humility and leadership, in addition knowledge about the impact of cuts to defense spending, would aide him in his oversight of the Defense Department.  

“I had the honor of introducing this great American at his confirmation hearing on the Armed Services Committee,” Sullivan said. “I think he’s going to be an important addition to President Biden’s team.”

Austin was a commander of U.S. forces as they invaded Iraq in the early 2000s. He has held leadership positions in multiple defense agencies, including spending time as the division commander of the U.S. Central Command.

Biden and Austin also have a close working relationship. Austin served with the president’s son Beau in Iraq in 2008 and 2009, where the two formed a close bond. Biden has called Austin “the definition of duty, honor and country.”

One of Austin’s key roles will be organizing the military distribution of Covid-19 vaccines throughout the country. It has been reported that the Trump administration left behind no plan for that rollout, so the Biden team will have to build a plan from scratch.

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