In win for Austin, top Senate Democrat agrees to back waiver

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Connor O’Brien
·3 min read
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The incoming chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Wednesday that he'll back Lloyd Austin to be defense secretary and support a waiver for him to take the job, a victory for the nominee who still has doubters in both chambers and both parties.

"Lloyd Austin is a decorated leader who has led a distinguished career and is exceptionally qualified," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). "He has demonstrated a clear commitment to civilian control of the military."

"I will support his historic nomination and believe he will restore direction to a Pentagon that has been left rudderless and adrift for too long under the previous administration," he added. "His character and integrity are unquestioned and he possesses the knowledge and skill to effectively lead the Pentagon."

Strong backing from Reed and other top lawmakers in both parties bodes well for Austin's confirmation, but the retired general still must clear hurdles in the Senate and House. In addition to being confirmed, Congress must also pass a waiver to allow him to take the job.

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Biden administration's choice to be secretary of defense, speaks during an event at The Queen theater.
Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Biden administration's choice to be secretary of defense, speaks during an event at The Queen theater.

Reed's move, though expected, comes four years after Reed said he wouldn't support another exception to the law that prohibits officers who've been out of uniform less than seven years from serving as Pentagon chief after Congress approved a waiver for Jim Mattis. Austin, a retired Army general, left the service in 2016.

In a statement, Reed cited "historic circumstances" that swayed his decision on the waiver, including a deadly riot by Trump supporters at the Capitol this month, concerns of politicization of the military under President Donald Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic.

"I backed the waiver for General Mattis in large part because of Donald Trump’s inexperience and temperament and had no intention of supporting another waiver so soon," Reed said. "That rationale seems almost quaint now considering the seismic forces we are currently facing."

Reed will take over as Armed Services chair once President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are sworn in along with new Democratic senators from Georgia and California to cement a 50-50 Senate, with Harris casting a tie-breaking vote.

The Rhode Island Democrat declared his support for Austin after the nominee largely cruised through an Armed Services confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

Senators from both parties, including outgoing Chair Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), said they'd support Biden's pick. Though a handful of senators — including Republican Tom Cotton and Democrats Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Duckworth and Richard Blumenthal — have said their concerns about civilian control of the military are too great to support a waiver for Austin.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, are aiming to get Austin confirmed and on the job as soon as possible.

The Senate and House must both approve a waiver for Austin to take the job. The House will vote on the waiver on Thursday after the House Armed Services Committee scrapped a public hearing with Austin. The Senate will follow.