Members of Congress voted to grant Lloyd Austin a waiver to lead the Pentagon despite being out of uniform for less than the seven years required by law, setting the stage for him to be confirmed as defense secretary as early as Thursday night.
House members approved the move in a vote of 326 to 78 Thursday afternoon. Sixty-three Republicans voted against granting the waiver, along with 15 Democrats.
Senators approved the move soon after, approving the move in a vote of 69 to 27 to grant the waiver.
The Senate Armed Services Committee approved Austin’s waiver and his nomination earlier on Thursday. The full Senate is expected to confirm Austin to be the defense secretary following the waiver votes.
Prior to the House vote on Austin’s waiver, lawmakers debated whether Congress should grant another waiver to a recently retired military officer to serve as the civilian head of the military just four years after they did so for Jim Mattis. President Donald Trump nominated Mattis to be his defense secretary less than seven years after the general retired from the Marine Corps.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, a former Marine officer and Wisconsin Republican, was among several in his party who said he'd opt against a waiver for Austin, despite approving the move for Mattis. Austin retired from the Army in 2016 after overseeing all military operations in the Middle East as head of U.S. Central Command.
"If we change the law today, we will now have done so twice within four years, effectively destroying the historical precedent against such exemptions," Gallagher said. "... I can only say that four years from now, I hope we are not having the exact same debate because it will prove that we have learned nothing from this."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat, acknowledged that he wasn't thrilled when President Joe Biden chose another recently retired military leader to be defense secretary. Still, Smith added, he felt the waiver should be approved swiftly and that Austin is the right person to lead the military at this time.
"It's clear that Mr. Austin is highly qualified to be secretary of defense," Smith said. "It's also clear that he has a full appreciation of the importance of civilian control of the military. And finally, it's clear that, unique to this moment, his experiences as an African American man coming up through the military put him in a unique position to address the problems of White supremacy and the lack of diversity across the military."
Rep. Anthony Brown, a retired Army colonel and Maryland Democrat, said Austin's nomination serves as more than a symbolic milestone at a time when the country is grappling with questions about systemtic racism and discrimination.
"It's a substantive answer to many of the challenges that the military faces," he said. "... Racial and ethnic groups make up more than 40% of the nation's military, but there's a significant lack of diversity in civilian and military leadership at the most senior levels, due in large part to systemic racial bias in promotion and assignment boards.
"This hurts the military, our readiness and our effectiveness."
Other Democrats who said they'd support the waiver pointed to Austin's strong working relationship with Biden and the retired general's experience drawing down tens of thousands of U.S. forces from Iraq as the Defense Department works to distribute millions of coronavirus vaccines across the country.
Austin met with members of the House Armed Services Committee ahead of the waiver vote to discuss the issue of civilian control of the military.
Experts have warned against issuing back-to-back waivers to Austin and Mattis. Newly retired officers risk relying on their uniformed networks, Lindsay Cohn, a professor at the Naval War College who studies civilian-military relations, told senators this month. The SecDef job is also inherently political, experts said, and newly retired service members aren't always comfortable standing up to their former uniformed colleagues.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican, said Austin "very eloquently" stated during Thursday's meeting that he's prepared to stand up to military leaders.
"He can tell them what's good for the civilian control of our country," Lamborn said. "I trust him. He's the right man for the job."
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called on the House to revisit the number of years future defense secretaries are required to be out of uniform. What was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation vote on Mattis' waiver is now back up for debate four years later, he said, which means the topic must be revisited.
"Although General Austin is a very qualified individual, he still will have subordinates who he helped promote, he still will have people that he is extremely close to, and that creates a question of civilian leadership," Issa said.