Congress Grants Waiver to Austin to Serve as Defense Secretary

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WASHINGTON — The House and Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a special waiver to allow Lloyd J. Austin III, a retired four-star Army general, to serve as secretary of defense, eliminating a hurdle to confirmation for a crucial member of President Biden’s national security team who is poised to become the first Black American to lead the Pentagon.

In back-to-back votes, lawmakers in both parties approved the special dispensation for General Austin to hold the post, as required for any defense secretary who has been retired from active-duty military service for fewer than seven years. Leaders set a vote for Friday morning to confirm him.

The flurry of activity on Capitol Hill — and the pressure exerted by top Democrats to push his confirmation through — reflected the sense of urgency in the Biden administration to rapidly install General Austin as the defense secretary, a step normally taken on a president’s first day in office to signal the continuity of American power as the presidency changes hands.

“In the face of the many threats, both foreign and domestic, confronting our nation, it is essential that Secretary-designate Austin be immediately confirmed,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “Blocking this waiver would be a mistake that, among other dangers, would delay the urgent work to be done to restore the independence and capabilities of the Defense Department, which we must do as soon as possible.”

For weeks, General Austin’s chances for securing the waiver seemed tenuous, as lawmakers in both parties voiced reluctance to grant an exception to a law intended to maintain civilian control of the military. Congress approved a similar measure four years ago for Jim Mattis, President Donald J. Trump’s first defense secretary and a retired four-star Marine officer; some Democrats vowed that they would never do so again.

But over the past two weeks, officials from Mr. Biden’s transition team, aided by top Democrats in Congress, put intense pressure on lawmakers to clear the way for General Austin, and many began to scrap their reservations. Ms. Pelosi leaned on her members on Thursday during a private conference call to grant General Austin the waiver, according to multiple Democrats familiar with the remarks.

“Can you give the president of the United States the benefit of the doubt?” Ms. Pelosi asked, according to the Democrats, who described the private comments on the condition of anonymity.

On Thursday, General Austin met privately with members of the House Armed Services Committee and provided lawmakers with the same assurances that he gave to senators on that chamber’s Armed Services panel when he testified this week.

“I intend to surround myself with and empower experienced, capable civilian leaders who will enable healthy civil-military relations, grounded in meaningful oversight,” General Austin said. When it came to Congress, he added, “We will be transparent with you. I will provide you my best counsel. And I will seek yours.”

An intense lobbying campaign in support of General Austin’s nomination played out in the Senate. Vice President Kamala Harris reached out to her former colleagues, and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, buttonholed lawmakers on the Senate floor.

Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, who shares a military history with General Austin, was alarmed by the negative tone of a hearing concerning the waiver issue in the Senate committee this month.

“There had to be pushback, because I was concerned,” he said. Mr. Sullivan quickly began to lobby numerous colleagues.

For General Austin’s allies, the siege by Trump supporters at the Capitol this month and the participation of some veterans and active-duty members of the military further underscored the importance of confirming a Black man to lead the Pentagon.

“We cannot overlook the historical significance of Secretary-designate Austin being the first African-American selected to be secretary of defense in our history,” Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a letter to Democratic lawmakers this week.

“Our country is facing a violent insurrection from right-wing extremists, driven primarily by white supremacist organizations,” he wrote. “In the face of these realities, it would be a grave mistake for the United States House of Representatives to block Secretary-designate Austin from being confirmed as our secretary of defense.”

Even though 43 percent of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty in the United States are people of color, the leaders at the top of the military’s chain of command have remained remarkably white and male. When President Barack Obama selected General Austin to lead the United States Central Command, the nation’s premier military command, he became one of the highest-ranked Black men in the military, second only to Colin L. Powell, who had been the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Once installed, General Austin is expected to need very little time to acclimate to the new post. On Wednesday, hours after Mr. Biden took office, more than two dozen high-level aides at the Pentagon were sworn in, including the defense secretary’s chief of staff, in an extraordinary move aimed at allowing General Austin’s team to hit the ground running before more senior officials are confirmed by the Senate.

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