UPDATED: 11:20 a.m. ET, Jan. 22 —
The U.S. Senate voted Friday to confirm retired Army General Lloyd Austin to be the next Secretary of defense, making him the first Black person to ever lead the federal agency. His swift confirmation came one day after Congress granted him a necessary waiver.
The selection of the 67-year-old retired military veteran by then President-elect Biden initially caused a mini-bipartisan controversy because he has only been retired for fewer than five years. The law stipulates that secretaries of defense must have established at least seven years of being a civilian, a circumstance that meant Congress needed to first grant him a waiver before the Senate could confirm him.
Fifteen Democrats were among the 78 U.S. Representatives who voted against granting Lloyd the waiver. Powerful Democrats like members of “The Squad” and California Rep. Katie Porter were part of those who opposed the waiver.
Democrats were highly resentful of when Donald Trump‘s Defense nominee Gen. James Mattis was given a waiver and ultimately confirmed to the cabinet position in 2017. It’s likely some Democrats who wanted civilian control of the Defense Department also feared granting Austin a waiver could be seen as hypocrisy and possibly used as political capital against them in the future.
Democratic Connecticut Rep. Chris Murphy tweeted that now was not the time to play politics considering the urgency of the moment America is faced with.
“The internal security threat the U.S. faces right now is serious. We need a Secretary of Defense on the job immediately. I will vote to confirm Lloyd Austin and grant him a waiver, and I urge other Senators to do the same,” Murphy tweeted before the vote was held.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was instantly one of the leading Senate Democrats who came out against granting Austin a waiver when he was nominated early last month.
“I opposed a waiver for Gen. Mattis, and I will oppose a waiver for Gen. Austin,” Warren said Dec. 9. “I don’t think we ought to be doing these waivers.”
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, both Democrats, also expressed similar sentiments at the time.
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, previously suggested Biden designate another nominee instead of Austin.
“I think the preference would be for someone who is not recently retired,” he said.
Biden laid out a compelling argument in an op-ed for the Atlantic for why Austin should be an exception to the rule. He lauded Austin’s use of “diplomacy” instead of destruction in being the primary architect for both the U.S. military’s drawdown in Iraq as well as designing and executing “the campaign that ultimately beat back ISIS, helping to build a coalition of partners and allies from more than 70 countries who worked together to overcome a common enemy.”
Biden called Austin “the person we need in this moment” and said Congress should grant him a waiver just like it did with Mattis.
“Given the immense and urgent threats and challenges our nation faces, he should be confirmed swiftly,” Biden wrote.
Biden repeated those calls when introducing Austin as his Defense secretary-designate during a press conference touting his national security team.
Austin credited previous pioneering Black military members for his nomination, including the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen, Gen. Colin Powell and Henry O. Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point. Austin and Flipper are both from Thomasville, Georgia.
Austin also addressed the elephant in the room.
Speaking about the “important distinction” between “General Austin” and “Lloyd Austin” the retired civilian, Austin tried to allay concerns about having any conflict of interest while serving as secretary of defense.
“I come to this new role as a civilian leader,” he said. “With military experience, to be sure, but also with a deep appreciation for maintaining civilian control of the defense department.”
He said he would surround himself with career civil servants and ensure there is “meaningful civilian oversight.”
The controversy came as Biden vowed to have a presidential cabinet that “looks like America.” He has more than made good on that promise, what with multiple Black and brown people as well as women being selected for key roles within his administration.
Many of those people already tapped to be a part of the Biden-Harris administration will be the first Black people to serve in those roles. Biden ran down the list of historical firsts during which Austin broke racial barriers in case anyone forgot.
“He was the first African American general officer to lead an Army corps in combat and the first African American to command an entire theater of war; if confirmed, he will be the first African American to helm the Defense Department—another milestone in a barrier-breaking career dedicated to keeping the American people secure,” Biden reminded.