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March 7, 2021

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Congress poised for quick action on Pentagon pick

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Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, appears virtually to ask questions during a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, left, on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, appears virtually to ask questions during a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, left, on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (greg nash/Pool) Photo Gallery

WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled Congress easily passed legislation Thursday required to confirm retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as President Joe Biden’s secretary of defense, brushing aside concerns that his retirement occurred inside the seven-year window that safeguards civilian leadership of the military.

It would be the first measure to be signed into law by brand-new President Joe 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 on Friday.

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

Austin, a 41-year veteran of the Army, has promised to surround himself with qualified civilians and include them in policy decisions. He said he has spent nearly his entire life committed to the principle of civilian control over the military.

While the waiver is expected to be approved, 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.

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 the Senate Armed Services 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.”

Austin said he will insist that the leaders of every military service know that extremist behavior in their ranks is unacceptable.

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