Congress moves toward approving Biden’s defense secretary pick

U.S.

FILE – In this Sept. 16, 2015, photo, U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin III, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Biden will nominate retired four-star Army general Lloyd J. Austin to be secretary of defense. That’s according to three people familiar with the decision who spoke on condition of anonymity because the selection hadn’t been formally announced. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The Democratic-controlled Congress passed legislation Thursday required to confirm retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as President Joe Biden’s secretary of defense.

It would be the first measure to be signed into law by President Biden.

The Senate sent the measure exempting Austin from the seven-year rule to Biden after a 69-27 Senate tally that came moments after a comparably lopsided 326-78 House vote. The back-to-back votes put Austin in position to be confirmed as secretary by Friday.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, confirmed that the confirmation vote on Austin would be conducted Friday.

Ahead of the vote, Austin held a briefing with Democratic and Republican House members to discuss the importance of civilian control of the military.

The House Armed Services Committee planned a hearing on the waiver issue, but could not do so quickly enough because the panel’s membership in the newly elected Congress has not been made final.

“Secretary-designate Austin understands that some members had reservations about his nomination given the need for a waiver, and his willingness to have an open dialogue with Congress is a testament to the kind of leader he is and will be once his historic confirmation is complete,” Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said in a statement.

If confirmed by the Senate to the post, Austin would become the first Black defense secretary.

Democratic House leaders have said they expect the House to approve the waiver despite concern from some lawmakers in both parties about the need to protect civilian control of the military. Former President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary, retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, also needed and received a waiver.

“Civilian control of the military is not an issue for us, it is a value, it is a principle,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a news conference.

Pelosi also expressed confidence that the Senate would confirm Austin as Pentagon chief once the waiver is approved, calling him “a highly qualified and well-respected leader with over 40 years of decorated service.”

Democrats have expressed support for Biden’s efforts to get top national security nominee into their positions as quickly as possible. Biden took office on Wednesday.

Austin had a smooth confirmation hearing in the Senate on Tuesday. Austin said he would work to get rid of “racists and extremists” from the ranks of the U.S. military.

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