Lawmakers Skip Move to Expedite Biden Defense Pick in Virus Bill


Congressional leaders omitted a provision in a year-end virus relief package that would have expedited the granting of a waiver to allow President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of defense to clear a legal hurdle to his nomination, according to a House Democratic leadership aide.

Biden selected retired Army General Lloyd Austin, the first Black general to command U.S. forces in the Middle East, to run the Pentagon. But Austin needs special authorization by both chambers of Congress to hold the post, since he hasn’t been out of uniform for at least seven years -- a legal requirement designed to preserve civilian control of the military.

Democrats sought to include a special provision to expedite the waiver in a massive spending and virus relief package, arguing that Austin should get the same treatment as President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief: retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis.

But Republicans rejected the provision, the Democratic aide said late Sunday.

Some Democrats were also publicly opposed to expediting the process, arguing that any waiver should be publicly debated in Congress.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he would likely support a waiver, but that it deserved a separate vote because of the importance of civilian control of the military.

“I think there needs to be debate about it. And I think Austin will be approved,” the Maryland Democrat said. “So, it has nothing to do with the individual.”

The National Security Act of 1947 required that former military personnel wait 10 years before being confirmed to head the Pentagon, or get a waiver from both chambers of Congress. That delay was later reduced to seven years.

Before Mattis got a waiver, Congress had made only one exception in decades: all the way back in 1950 for a military legend, General George C. Marshall.

Biden acknowledged the waiver issue when introducing Austin as his nominee this month.

“There’s a good reason for that law that I understand and respect,” he said. “I believe in the importance of civilian control of the military.” Nevertheless, Biden added, “we need his firsthand knowledge of the unmeasurable cost of war and the burden it places on our service members and their families.”

Austin was the head of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016 under President Barack Obama. He succeeded Mattis in that key military role, overseeing troops in a region including Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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