Both chambers of Congress on Thursday approved a waiver for President Joe Biden’s secretary of defense nominee.
Federal law prohibits the appointment of a secretary of defense within seven years of him or her being on active duty.
Congress passed a bill carving out an exception for Biden’s nominee, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin. Austin retired from the U.S. Army on May 1, 2016.
The House passed the bill, H.R. 335, 326-78. Over 100 Republicans voted yes, along with 205 Democrats.
Fifteen Democrats voted no, as did 63 Republicans.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said on the House floor before the vote that Austin is “highly qualified” and has assured legislators that he understands the importance of civilian control of the military.
“He has met with us, he has showed us that he respects what is really one of the cornerstones of civilian control of the military and that is the House and the Senate. We are the ones who have oversight of the pentagon. He’s shown that he respects that. So I can tell you and all members voting, without a shadow of a doubt, I have no concern whatsoever about Lloyd Austin upholding civilian control of the military,” Smith said.
The lawmaker, who voted to approve the bill, also said the fact that Austin is African-American would help deal with “the rise of white supremacy and white nationalism” within the military.
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), among the “no” votes, said he opposed the measure because it would be the second time in five years that Congress carved out an exception to the law, “effectively destroying the historical precedent against such exemptions.”
“We will also invert the congressional intent in the underlying national security act by setting the precedent that the presumption is for approval, not the disapproval, of recently retired officers,” he said.
Following the House’s approval, the Senate voted 69-27 to pass the exception. Democrats and Republicans were split, with some members voting each way.
“I am confident that Mr. Austin will bring steadiness, leadership, and respect to this indispensable American institution,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said on the Senate floor, referring to the Pentagon.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) said in a statement that she voted against the waiver because of concerns about erosion of civilian control over the U.S. military.
“I cannot support continuing to erode civilian control over our military, which is a foundational principle of our democracy,” she said. “To be clear, I respect my colleagues’ decision to move forward with his confirmation. In the coming days, I will speak with General Austin about Nevada’s national security priorities and continue to evaluate his record independent of my vote today.”
The Senate will vote on the actual nomination at a later date.
Austin told senators during his recent confirmation hearing that he understood the reservations some of them had about having another recently retired general head the Pentagon, after retired Gen. James Mattis did so under former President Donald Trump.
“The safety and security of our democracy demands confidence and civilian control over armed forces, the subordination of military power to the civil. I spent my entire life committed to that principal. In war and in peace, I implemented the policies of civilians, elected and appointed over me,” he said.
“And I know that being a member of the president’s cabinet, a political appointee, requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform. I intend to surround myself with and empower experienced, capable civilian leaders who will enable healthy civil-military relations grounded in meaningful oversight.”