Senate confirms Austin as nation’s first Black Defense secretary

The Senate voted Friday, 93-2, to confirm Lloyd Austin to become Defense secretary, making him the first Black man to lead the massive department. 

The House voted 326-78 to pass a waiver Thursday, which exempts Austin from the seven-year "cooling off period" for retired generals taking over the helm of the Pentagon currently prescribed by law. The Senate immediately took up the waiver, passing it on a 69-27 vote.

Former President Donald Trump sought the same waiver for James Mattis, his first Defense secretary, who was a retired Marine Corps four-star general. Prior to Mattis, the only other Defense secretary who required a waiver was George Marshall in 1947.

Some experts and lawmakers said that confirming Austin, a former four-star Army general who retired in 2016, would effectively give military officers more control over the Pentagon at a time when the civilian side of the department has been muted, and faith in the government is at a low point.

But during this week's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin sought to allay those concerns.

"At last week's hearing on civilian control of the military, valid concerns were raised. But at his nomination hearing, Austin pledged to repair civilian military relations. These were critical comments from Austin, whom I support," Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on the Senate floor Friday.

Reed's Republican counterpart, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, echoed Reed's support for Austin, who served as the commander of U.S. Central Command, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Austin rose through the ranks of the Army to become the commander of CENTCOM. He's done everything right," Inhofe said on the Senate floor Friday. "I can't think of a better person to take the helm than General Austin."

Austin served as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2010 and 2011 and then as head of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016, when he commanded all U.S. forces in the region. Following his retirement in 2016, Austin joined the board of Raytheon Co., one of the nation's largest defense contractors.

Austin had promised to recuse himself for four years from all dealings concerning Raytheon, should he be confirmed as Defense secretary.

The Senate vote makes Austin the second nominee in President Joe Biden's Cabinet to be confirmed.

During his opening remarks on the Senate floor Thursday, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., urged the prompt confirmation of Defense, State, Homeland Security and Treasury secretaries.

"As we begin the process of bringing our country back together, let the first week of this Congress be a collaboration between our two parties to confirm President Biden's Cabinet," Schumer said.

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