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House votes to waive rule blocking Ret. Gen. Austin’s SecDef nomination

Then-U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander, U.S. Forces Iraq, during his change-of-command ceremony in Baghdad, Sept. 1, 2010. (Department of Defense/Released)
January 21, 2021

The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to grant retired U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin a waiver to serve as the secretary of defense, overriding a law prohibiting commissioned military officers from leading the Department of Defense for at least seven years after retiring from the service. The Senate will now vote on the waiver, and if it passes, a final confirmation vote will be held.

The provision blocking former military service members from serving as secretaries of defense was established as part of an effort to preserve civilian control of the U.S. military. Austin retired from the Army in 2016, placing him inside the seven-year period that would otherwise prohibit him from leading the Department of Defense.

A similar waiver was granted to President Donald Trump’s first pick for defense secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis in 2017.

The House voted 326 – 78 in favor of advancing the waiver for Austin, President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of defense. 204 Democrats voted for the waiver and 15 voted against it, while 121 Republicans voted for the waiver and 63 voted against it. Two Democrats and 27 Republicans did not vote.

A waiver for Austin to serve as secretary of defense is also moving through the U.S. Senate. If a waiver is passed by both chambers of Congress, the Senate may then begin the process to confirm Austin to the Pentagon role.

Speaking before the House vote on Thursday, Rep. Adam Smith (D-CA), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said, “I am optimistic that the Senate will act swiftly to complete Secretary-designate Austin’s confirmation and provide the Pentagon with the strong, stable leadership required for these tumultuous times.”

After the vote passed, Smith said, “Today the House sent a clear message: Secretary-designate Austin is an extremely qualified leader who should be swiftly confirmed by the Senate and assume the role of Secretary of Defense. Our country faces a myriad of national security challenges, and President Biden deserves the cabinet of his choosing as his administration seeks to address these challenges. In his conversations with me and many other members of the House, Secretary-designate Austin has proven that he is a capable leader, who is committed to the civilian control of our military and is ready to lead the Department of Defense as soon as he is confirmed. I remain optimistic that the Senate will act expeditiously to complete Secretary-designate Austin’s historic confirmation.”

On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee favorably voted on a Senate version of the waiver, S. 12. The vote advanced the bill out of the Senate committee and will go to the Senate floor for a full vote.

On Thursday, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking Republican for the Senate Armed Services Committee said, “After this week’s nomination hearing, I am very confident that Lloyd Austin will be a strong, capable civilian leader for the Pentagon at this critical time. I’m grateful for his commitment to strong civil-military relations and appreciate that he will focus intently on the serious threats facing our nation right now—especially China and Russia. I’ve always said it’s critical to have Senate-confirmed leadership in place at the Pentagon, and I look forward to voting with the full Senate to confirm Austin as soon as we can.”