House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) gave his full backing Friday to President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to be Defense secretary, saying an “extensive conversation” reassured him.
The House normally has no say in nominees, which are confirmed by the Senate. But Biden’s Pentagon pick, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, needs both the House and Senate to approve a waiver to a law that bars recently retired generals from leading the Defense Department.
Austin retired from the military four years ago, and the law requires Defense secretaries be out-of-uniform for at least seven years.
“Before meeting with Secretary-designate Austin today, I already knew he was a proven leader with the deep experience – both professional and personal – required to be an effective secretary of Defense. Yet, the nomination of another recently retired general to lead the Department of Defense also gave me pause,” Smith said in a statement Friday.
“Following our extensive conversation today, I am reassured that Secretary-designate Austin shares my commitment to civilian control of the military and will do what it takes to uphold this cherished principle once confirmed by the Senate,” Smith added.
Smith also confirmed his panel is planning to hold a hearing with Austin about the waiver Jan. 21, one day after Biden’s inauguration.
A spokesperson for Smith previously said Jan. 21 was the earliest the committee could hold the hearing because of the House calendar and rules governing committee business.
The Senate Armed Services Committee announced Thursday it will hold Austin’s confirmation hearing the day before the inauguration.
It is tradition for key national security jobs to be confirmed on Day 1 of a new presidency, and Biden has urged senators to confirm his nominees for secretary of Defense, State, Treasury and Homeland Security as close to Jan. 20 as possible.
But the timing of the House hearing all but assures Austin will not be confirmed on Inauguration Day, short of House leadership leapfrogging its Armed Services Committee to bring the waiver to a vote before a hearing.
In a letter Friday, 10 Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee warned Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) against expediting Austin’s waiver and circumventing the panel.
“An issue of such historical significance cannot be rushed,” the lawmakers, led by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), wrote to Pelosi. “As members of the House Armed Services Committee, we urge the waiver process to receive full time for deliberation, including committee hearings, a committee vote, and a recorded vote on the House floor.”
Some lawmakers in both parties have expressed unease about granting Austin a waiver so soon after they approved one for President Trump’s first Defense secretary, James Mattis.
Mattis was only the second person the law was waived for since it was enacted in 1947. George Marshall received a waiver in 1950.
Most House Democrats, including Smith, opposed Mattis’s waiver after Trump would not let him testify before the House Armed Services Committee prior to the vote. But they are in a tough spot with Austin, in part because he would be the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also said Friday he was reassured after a meeting with Austin and would support a waiver after a House Armed Services hearing.
“I congratulated General Austin on the historic nature of his nomination and expressed my strong support for granting the waiver necessary for him to be confirmed as secretary once the House Armed Services Committee has held a hearing to review the issue of civilian control of the military,” Hoyer said in a statement. “I was reassured by Gen. Austin’s commitment to respecting the bedrock principle of civilian control of the military and his focus on prioritizing support to service members and their families.”