WASHINGTON ― House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., is lobbying fellow Democrats to grant a waiver for retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to be the next Defense secretary, so he can be quickly confirmed.
Though Austin will not be confirmed before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in Jan. 20 because of the congressional calendar, Democrats have voiced a determination to confirm Austin in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Though the Senate must confirm Austin, the House will vote, likely this week, on a waiver that would allow waive the cooling-off period for a general to serve in the top Department of Defense job.
Austin’s formal confirmation hearing in the Senate is set for Tuesday afternoon.
Smith, who urged support from House Democrats in a letter Monday, argued that Austin, who would be America’s first Black defense secretary, deserves special consideration, and that the Trump administration’s attempts “to undermine the independence and capability” of the DoD constitute just some of the special circumstances greeting Biden’s pick.
“Our country is facing a violent insurrection from right-wing extremists, driven primarily by white supremacist organizations. Troubling evidence continues to emerge that the military itself has servicemembers sympathetic to extreme views and white supremacist causes,” Smith said in a series of tweets echoing his letter.
“Blocking [Austin’s] confirmation will send a false, dangerous message that Congress believes a highly qualified African American is unable to do the job – that would be a grave mistake.”
Smith on Friday introduced waiver legislation for Austin.
The message comes as 16 former senior DoD civilians signed a letter to assuage concerns from both sides of the aisle that a waiver so soon after Congress granted one to President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, will erode the the principle of civilian control of the military.
The letter says the ongoing national crisis requires Austin’s “steady, experienced, and historic leadership,” and it touts Austin’s tenure working with civilian leaders as the Army’s vice chief and head of U.S. Central Command as a sign he respects civilian control.
Austin “is well prepared to work closely and transparently with Congress in overseeing and explaining the strategies, capabilities, and budget our military needs to check our most threatening adversaries,” the letter reads.
The list includes former defense secretaries Bill Cohen, Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta and Bill Perry, among others.
House Democrats face new pressure to unite their majority around Austin as the Republican Study Committee, a large bloc of House conservatives, announced their opposition in a memo last week.
The memo, first reported by Politico, argued Austin is “not the right person for the job,” and criticized his leadership of CENTCOM and perceived lack of experience countering China and in civilian policy debates.
Since Smith initially expressed concerns about Austin’s candidacy eroding civilian control of the military, Biden’s team agreed Austin would testify before the House Armed Services Committee, and Smith has repeatedly voiced support for Austin. The hearing is set for Jan. 21.
In Smith’s letter, obtained by Defense News, he said he and other lawmakers have spoken with Austin multiple times and received confirmation that Austin understands civilian control and is committed to uphold it. Moreover, Biden has named experienced civilians to fill other senior roles at the Pentagon.
“In short, I have no doubt that civilian control of the military will be completely upheld by Secretary-designate Austin when he is our Secretary of Defense,” Smith’s letter said.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.