WASHINGTON — Congress passed legislation on Thursday required to confirm retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, brushing aside concerns that his retirement occurred inside a seven-year window safeguarding civilian leadership of the military.
The 326-78 vote in the House and 69-27 vote in the Senate granted a waiver exempting Austin from the seven-year rule. All signs point to quick action in the Senate after that, putting Austin on track to be confirmed as secretary by week’s end. Austin, a 41-year veteran of the Army, has promised to surround himself with qualified civilians and include them in policy decisions.
The vote puts some Democrats in a position to look like they’ve flip-flopped. Many of them opposed a similar waiver in 2017 for Jim Mattis, former President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense.
Maine’s delegation split during Thursday’s vote, with independent Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District, supporting the waiver and Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District opposing it. Golden was one of only 15 House Democrats to oppose the waiver.
Golden, a Marine veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, said in a statement that he thought Austin was qualified for the job and hoped he would be confirmed if Congress passed the waiver. But he was concerned about waiving the seven-year requirement twice in four years and thought Congress had not given itself enough time to debate the issue.
“If it becomes a mere formality in nature, it will no longer serve any meaningful purpose in ensuring civilian control of the military,” Golden said.
Austin, who would be the first Black secretary of defense, said he understands why some have questioned the wisdom of putting a recently retired general in charge of the Defense Department. Much of his focus this week, including in his remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, has been on persuading members of Congress that although he has been out of uniform for less than five years, he sees himself as a civilian, not a general.
Some aspects of his policy priorities are less clear. He emphasized on Tuesday that he will follow Biden’s lead in giving renewed attention to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
“I will quickly review the department’s contributions to coronavirus relief efforts, ensuring we are doing everything we can — and then some — to help distribute vaccines across the country and to vaccinate our troops and preserve readiness,” he told a Senate committee.
Under questioning by senators, Austin pledged to address white supremacy and violent extremism in the ranks of the military — problems that received relatively little public attention from his immediate predecessor, Mark Esper. Austin promised to “rid our ranks of racists,” and said he takes the problem personally.
“The Defense Department’s job is to keep America safe from our enemies,” he said. “But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
He offered glimpses of other policy priorities, indicating that he embraces the view among many in Congress that China is the “pacing challenge,” or the leading national security problem for the U.S.
The Middle East was the main focus for Austin during much of his 41-year Army career, particularly when he reached senior officer ranks. He served several tours of duty as a commander in Iraq, including as the top commander in 2010-11.
An aspect of the defense secretary’s job that is unfamiliar to most who take the job is the far-flung and complex network of nuclear forces that are central to U.S. defense strategy. As a career Army officer, Austin had little reason to learn the intricacies of nuclear policy, since the Army has no nuclear weapons. He told his confirmation hearing that he would bone up on this topic before committing to any change in the nuclear policies set by the Trump administration, including its pursuit of nuclear modernization.
Story by Robert Burns and Andrew Taylor. Bangor Daily News writers Michael Shepherd and Jessica Piper contributed to this report.