Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of defense, is drawing opposition from some Democratic senators because he’s only been retired from active military duty for four years.
Austin, a respected former commander of the U.S. military effort in Iraq and a member of Raytheon’s board of directors, would make history as the first Black American to lead the Pentagon.
Biden formally announced his intention to nominate the retired general in an op-ed in The Atlantic on Tuesday afternoon.
Defense secretaries are legally required to have been retired from active duty for at least seven years. The law is meant to uphold the long-standing principle of civilian control of the military and to discourage political acts from active-duty military officers who may one day go on to lead the Pentagon.
Congress voted to waive that requirement for President Donald Trump’s Pentagon chief, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, in 2017, however. Mattis was similarly out of the service for less than seven years and was only the second nominee for whom a president requested a waiver in U.S. history.
Seventeen members of the Democratic Senate caucus voted against approving the waiver for Mattis. Now, some of those same senators say they’re unlikely to do so for Austin, even though they approve of his nomination.
“It is exciting and historic, but I believe that a waiver of the seven-year rule would contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control over a nonpolitical military,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Tuesday. “The principle is essential to our democracy ... which I think has to be applied unfortunately in this instance.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) added: “I think this guy is gonna be a great secretary of defense. I just think that we ought to look at the rules.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who as a member of the House will vote on whether to grant a waiver to Austin but not on his nomination, said she was wary of placing another retired general atop the Pentagon.
“After the last 4 years, civil-military relations at the Pentagon definitely need to be rebalanced,” Slotkin, a former CIA analyst, wrote on Twitter. “Gen. Austin has had an incredible career––but I’ll need to understand what he and the Biden Administration plan to do to address these concerns before I can vote for his waiver.”
In his op-ed, Biden justified the waiver request by arguing “Austin’s many strengths and his intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government are uniquely matched to the challenges and crises we face.”
“I hope that Congress will grant a waiver to Secretary-designate Austin, just as Congress did for Secretary Jim Mattis,” Biden wrote. “Given the immense and urgent threats and challenges our nation faces, he should be confirmed swiftly.”
The Congressional Black Caucus, which has pushed for more Black Cabinet appointees and is extremely influential within the Democratic caucus, also signaled its support for Austin.
“This appointment reverberates throughout the history of military service and courage in United States Armed Forces,” the group said in a statement Tuesday. “Black Americans have sacrificed their lives for this country in every war since the Revolutionary War. Appointing Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to a position of command and authority over the United States military, second only to the President of the United States, is historic and well-deserved.”
Austin’s path to confirmation could ultimately hinge on the support of a mix of centrist Democrats and Republicans. Secretaries of defense have traditionally garnered wide bipartisan support in the Senate; Mattis was confirmed 98-1.
“Although this is becoming a trend and I don’t like it, it is difficult to imagine voting for a Mattis waiver and not an Austin waiver,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told reporters on Tuesday.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who initially said he wouldn’t support a waiver for Austin, told reporters the quality of the nominee should be the top concern, but “the preference would be for someone who’s not recently retired.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would first process Austin’s nomination, said he would support a waiver for Austin “in a heartbeat” because of his general opposition to the seven-year requirement.
Asked whether he had any concerns about Austin, Inhofe said, “I really don’t.”
Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.