Both chambers pass Austin waiver, paving way for confirmation

The Senate could vote Friday on the nomination of the nation's first Black Defense secretary

Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, nominee to be Defense secretary, attends the inauguration before the swearing-in of Joe Biden as the 46th president on the West Front of the Capitol on Wednesday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, nominee to be Defense secretary, attends the inauguration before the swearing-in of Joe Biden as the 46th president on the West Front of the Capitol on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 21, 2021 at 4:27pm, Updated at 6:12pm

The House and Senate passed a waiver Thursday for Lloyd Austin to become the next Defense secretary in an unusually fast manner that paves the way for a final confirmation vote in the Senate by week’s end.

The House voted 326-78 to pass the waiver, which exempts Austin from the seven-year "cooling off period" for retired generals taking over the helm of the Pentagon currently prescribed by law. The Senate immediately took up the waiver, passing it on a 69-27 vote.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska., told reporters that a final Senate vote on Austin’s nomination is expected Friday.

The pair of floor votes came just hours after the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the waiver by voice vote. Committee members also advanced Austin's nomination by voice vote.

If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be the nation’s first Black Defense secretary.

“Mr. Austin will be the first Black person to lead the Pentagon, which is enormously important,” said House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith on the House floor. “The military has a problem with diversity, and in addition we have a problem with white supremacy in this country. Austin is in a unique position to address these problems.”

Smith’s Republican counterpart, Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, said he would support the waiver.

“Each president deserves the opportunity to fill his national security team as quickly as possible,” Rogers said on the floor. “I will vote for the waiver for Austin; to me it’s just fair as I voted for the same waiver for [former Defense Secretary James] Mattis.”

But Rogers also said he was frustrated by the waiver process, and said presidents should “follow the law as written,” and “stop asking Congress to waive the law.”

The waiver has been a point of contention throughout Austin’s nomination process, as some lawmakers raised concerns about civilian control of the military, and that granting it to two administrations in a row would set a dangerous precedent that the current law is somehow optional.

Former President Donald Trump sought the same waiver for Mattis, his first Defense secretary, who was a retired Marine Corps four-star general. Prior to Mattis, the only other Defense secretary who required a waiver was George Marshall in 1947.

During his opening remarks on the Senate floor Thursday, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., urged the prompt confirmation of Defense, State, Homeland Security and Treasury secretaries.

“As we begin the process of bringing our country back together, let the first week of this Congress be a collaboration between our two parties to confirm President Biden's Cabinet,” Schumer said.

During a committee hearing last week, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said they would not vote for a waiver. The following day, the Republican Study Committee, which counts most House GOP lawmakers as members, said it also opposes the waiver.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.