Political

Biden introduces historic defense secretary nominee as Congress debates waiver

Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesBy JOHN VERHOVEK and MOLLY NAGLE, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday officially introduced his nominee to lead the Department of Defense, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, who would be the first African American to hold the post but whose nomination is already facing headwinds in Congress.

Austin, a former commander of U.S. Central Command, who retired from military service in 2016 after a nearly 40-year career, will need a waiver from Congress to lead the Pentagon given that he is less than seven years removed from active duty.

In their remarks, both Biden and Austin took note of the looming battle over the waiver Austin would require to serve as Secretary of Defense due to his recent retirement, stressing their belief in a civilian-run military.

“There’s a good reason for this law, that I fully understand and respect. And I would not be asking for this exception … if I did not believe this moment in our history didn’t call for it — tt does call for it — and if I didn’t have the faith I have in Lloyd Austin to ask for it,” Biden said.

“I believe in the importance of civilian control of the military, so does the secretary designee Austin,” he added.

Austin, who oversaw the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011, tried to assuage concerns over his nomination, saying he believed in strong civilian oversight of the military as he stood alongside Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris.

“When I concluded my military service four years ago, I hung up my uniform for the last time, and went from being General Lloyd Austin to Lloyd Austin. It is an important distinction, and one that I make with utmost seriousness and sincerity. And so, I come to this … new role as a civilian leader with military experience, to be sure, but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military,” Austin said.

The waiver for Austin would come just four years after Congress took similar action to allow for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to serve in the role, and could put the 17 Senate Democrats who opposed Mattis’ waiver in a difficult position when it comes to Biden’s nominee.

Thus far, at least two Democratic senators, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, have suggested they could approve the waiver for Biden’s pick.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a former chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday that it is his “inclination” to support a waiver for Austin.

But Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a veteran herself, said that while she would support Austin’s nomination, she would not vote for the waiver.

“I will not vote for the waiver. I believe very strongly there needs to be civilian control, civilian oversight of the military,” Duckworth said Wednesday.

Most senators, though, have yet to say where they will end up, with many waiting to hear from Austin when he appears before Congress.

In the House, which will also need to approve a waiver for Austin, the measure for Mattis passed 268 to 151 in 2017, with 150 Democrats opposing the waiver — including prominent Democrats like Reps. Adam Smith, Adam Schiff, Marcia Fudge, and Cedric Richmond.

Richmond has already accepted a position in the Biden administration while Fudge is expected to be named Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, sources confirmed to ABC News on Tuesday evening.

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, now a Libertarian but then a Republican, was the only GOP member to oppose the waiver for Mattis.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed concern in 2017 that providing a waiver to Mattis would set a “dangerous” new precedent for leadership of the Pentagon.

“Waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation. Therefore I will not support a waiver for future nominees,” he said at the time. “It is up to this committee to ensure that the principle of civilian control of the armed forces … remains a defining tenet of our democracy.”

The Senate ultimately approved a waiver for Mattis by a 81-17 vote and confirmed him to serve as President Trump’s Secretary of Defense by a vote of 98-1.

On Wednesday, Biden made his desire for Austin’s swift confirmation clear, arguing that he is the right man to address immediate tasks like ensuring the effective distribution of a vaccine for COVID-19, and the longer-term goals of diversifying the department and ensuring it is modernized to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

“He is the person we need at this moment, in my view. And given the urgent threats and challenges of our nation’s forces, he should be confirmed swiftly,” Biden said.

Biden’s decision to tap Austin for the top defense post also has roots in their personal connection, fostered while working closely during the Obama administration. Austin also developed a personal relationship with Biden’s late son Beau, a subject both he and the president-elect raised during their remarks on Wednesday.

“I know how proud Beau was to serve on … General Austin’s staff,” Biden said Wednesday.

“Beau was a very special person and a true patriot, and a good friend to all who knew him,” Austin later added.

Harris, who will be the nation’s first female vice president when she and Biden take office in January, also noted the historic nature of Austin’s nomination, stressing that she and Biden would rely heavily on him and their entire national security team to address the challenges facing the country.

“This is a milestone nomination. A seasoned, highly decorated and trailblazing commander, General Austin reflects the very best of our nation, and President-elect Biden and I will work closely with him and our entire team of national security and foreign policy leaders to make sure the United States of America is safer and more secure than ever before,” Harris said.

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