All eyes on Reed as Austin waiver splits Democrats

Joe Gould, Leo Shane III

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Jack Reed has yet to take over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, but he’s already facing division within the panel and his party over the issue of President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Pentagon.

Four years ago, Reed, D-R.I., reluctantly supported President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of a recently retired general for defense secretary, Jim Mattis, despite expressing fears it would erode civilian control of the military. He vowed not to support another one in the future.

But now, Reed is in a political bind after Biden chose retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to be his defense secretary. To serve, Congress must grant Austin the same exception to a seven-year cooling-off period between uniformed service and the defense secretary job.

If confirmed, the former Army four-star and head of U.S. Central Command would be the first African American to serve in the role. Austin’s supporters, including former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, have argued that Austin’s unique background more than justifies the waiver.

Several Democrats on the committee have said they won’t support the waiver, despite Austin’s qualifications, out of principle: Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Tammy Duckworth, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren.

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Reed, as the senior voice on military issues in the Senate, may not have the political luxury to take the same stance against an incoming president from his own party. He is a pivotal figure in the waiver and nomination, and how he handles this will set the tone for his relationship with Biden and Austin, whose eventual confirmation seems likely.

Tuesday, during a committee hearing on the issue of the waiver and the importance of civilian control of the military, Reed remained torn between his desire to support Austin and his worry of the precedent set by a second waiver in four years.

“Civil military relations are never static and must constantly be tended to,” Reed said. “During the four years since the committee last considered such a waiver, the state of civil military relations has eroded significantly under President Trump and the Department of Defense is in many cases adrift.”

Yet Reed appeared to be trying for a path. He pointed to the ongoing global pandemic, a massive cyber attack on the United States, and last week’s assault on the Capitol to argue the country needs a defense secretary.

“The events of the past several months have thrown into sharp relief how perilously close the nation has come to undermining the resiliency of our democratic institutions. While not broken, these institutions and principles have been repeatedly subject to extreme stress,” he said.

“This dire situation calls for stability and a duly confirmed secretary of defense, who has responded to Congress in the confirmation process, and will be responsive to Congress, as well as the president in the execution of his duties.”

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Reed asked the expert witnesses for recommendations to ensure Austin, if confirmed, can protect and promote civilian control of the military, and he suggested a way to assuage concerns about Austin would be to confirm other Pentagon nominees with robust civilian experience, “as quickly as possible.”

Reed also set a bar for Austin at his confirmation hearing and meetings with lawmakers: to demonstrate he has a “complete commitment” to the bureaucratic politics of his new role and to a reliance on outside experience.

Austin would have some political awareness as a combatant commander, but an Army general’s “default logic” might not encompass the broader array of tools available to the government, Lindsay Cohn, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, told Reed.

“This is something Mr. Austin will be aware of but not something he would have had to personally play in,” said Cohn. “We saw with Mr. Mattis that was something he was very uncomfortable doing, and that is problematic.”

The Senate votes on the Austin’s waiver and his confirmation could differ from each other. While some Democratic lawmakers opposed to the waiver said they would consider Austin for confirmation, some Republicans have brushed off the waiver issue and said they see a lack of experience on China, which they see as the main threat.

“If Congress grants Mr. Austin a waiver, I’ll consider his nomination independently on the merits, and regardless of who the next secretary of defense is,” said Warren. “It’s clear that a lot of work must be done to restore civilian voices to their proper balance in the decision-making process at the Defense Department.”

Biden won’t have his defense secretary in place on Day One

On the waiver, Duckworth, D-Ill., said it would be unhealthy to have a defense secretary who is too close in thinking and personally with the top uniformed leaders. But she strongly hinted she would vote to confirm Austin.

“I have no doubt that he’ll bring his trademark dedication and steady leadership to the role of secretary of defense,” said Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran. “However, I stand firm in my conviction that the principle of civilian control control of the military is bigger than any one person, his personal experiences or resume.”

Austin is scheduled to appear before the SASC on Jan. 19 for his formal confirmation hearing. He is expected to testify Jan. 21 at the House Armed Services Committee on the waiver issue ― a step Mattis did not take, which is expected to head off concerns from many House Democrats.

Biden is scheduled to be sworn in as president on Jan. 20. Campaign officials have pushed senators to move quickly on his nominees — particularly his picks for key national security spots — to ensure a smooth transition into the next administration.