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President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday repeated his calls for Congress to swiftly confirm retired four-star Gen. Lloyd Austin as his Pentagon chief, appealing to his own party as much as Republicans amid concern that the pick has not been out of the military long enough.
At a press conference in Wilmington, Del., Biden praised Austin, a former commander of American forces in Iraq before his 2016 retirement, touting him as “a leader of extraordinary courage, character, experience and accomplishment.”
“Someone with whom I have worked closely for many years and I’ve seen perform to the highest standards under intense pressure,” Biden said.
The 67-year-old nominee would be the first African American to hold the role if confirmed and Biden lauded Austin’s experience at returning tens of thousands of US troops home from Iraq while he was vice president.
But the recently-retired general would need to obtain a waiver from Congress to override a law which says a defense secretary must wait seven years from active service to take the top civilian post.
Several Democratic senators on Wednesday said they would be unwilling to support overturning a rule intended to preserve civilian control over the military after they voted against a similar waiver for President Trump’s first Pentagon chief, retired Gen. Jim Mattis.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jon Tester (D-MT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) all publicly expressed discomfort with granting a waiver for Austin.
In 2016, Mattis’ waiver ultimately passed the Senate but the list of Democratic lawmakers who voted against the measure was long, including Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin of Illinois, Jon Tester of Montana, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Patty Murray of Washington and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
“I would not be asking for this exemption if I did not believe this moment in our history called for it and if I didn’t have the faith I have in Lloyd Austin,” Biden said Wednesday, anticipating a rocky confirmation process.
“He is the person we need in this moment, and given the urgent threats and challenges our nation faces, he should be confirmed swiftly,” he added.
“We need his expertise in large-scale logistics operations to help support the swift and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines,” Biden said.
But Warren, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said she would not change her view to suit Biden.
“I have great respect for General Austin. His career has been exemplary, and I look forward to meeting him and talking to him more, but I opposed a waiver for General Mattis and I will oppose a waiver for General Austin,” she told reporters on Wednesday, as reported by The Hill.
Speaking for the first time since his nomination, Austin, the first black commander to lead an Army corps in combat, said he knew what would be required of him.
“I recognize that being a member of the president’s cabinet requires a different perspective and unique responsibilities from a career in uniform,” he said, promising to offer Biden “direct and unvarnished counsel.”
“I look forward to surrounding myself with experienced, capable, civilian appointees and career civil servants who will enable healthy civil military relations grounded in meaningful civilian oversight,” he added.
After news of his confirmation broke, Biden’s own past defense policy advisor expressed concern, calling civilian leadership at the top of the Pentagon was “vital.”
Austin was not even Biden’s first choice for the role.
Pentagon veteran Michele Flournoy, who served as a defense undersecretary under President Barack Obama and deputy assistant secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, was considered Biden’s first pick and would have been the first woman to run the Pentagon.
But the former veep reportedly selected Austin amid mounting pressure from groups who wanted to see more black people appointed to Biden’s cabinet.