Senate Armed Services sets confirmation hearing for Austin

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The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Lloyd Austin to be Defense secretary just a day before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.

The Jan. 19 confirmation hearing — and an even later hearing before the House Armed Services Committee — means the retired Army general likely won’t be confirmed in time for the start of the new Biden administration.

The confirmation hearing was announced Thursday by Senate Armed Services ranking member Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who is set to chair the committee in a Democratic-led Senate. The chamber will be divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, but Democrats won’t take over until Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who will cast tie-breaking votes, are sworn in.

In addition to Senate confirmation, both the House and Senate must pass a waiver that exempts Austin from a law requiring the Defense secretary be out of uniform for at least seven years.

Ahead of a confirmation hearing, Senate Armed Services will hold a hearing Tuesday on civilian control of the military.

Despite the Pentagon chief historically being a quick and low-drama confirmation for most presidents, lawmakers likely won’t act in time for Austin to take over by Jan. 20.

The House is scheduled to be out of session next week and is likely to not hold a hearing with Austin until after Inauguration Day. House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has pushed for a hearing with Austin as part of the waiver process to address lawmakers’ concerns about his selection for the job and civilian control of the military.

“The House Armed Services Committee is planning for a hearing, but given that the House is in recess next week, the hearing is likely to happen on January 21st or later,” said Monica Matoush, a House Armed Services Democratic spokesperson.

Matoush noted that the committee must have full slates of members and formally organize and adopt rules before holding hearings. Democrats and Republicans must still appoint members to fill vacancies on the committee.

“Bottom line, we are following regular order until something else happens, and we are very confident that the waiver will pass the House,” Matoush added.

Defense News first reported that Austin likely won’t be confirmed in time for day one of the Biden administration, in a break from past administrations.

The waiver requirement makes Austin’s confirmation particularly complex. Though the House doesn’t get a say in Austin’s confirmation, the waiver must pass both chambers, giving the House a de facto veto over Austin’s nomination.

Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general, also required a waiver to serve as President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary. The possibility of a second retired general leading the Pentagon in four years has lawmakers in both parties on edge.

It’s unclear who would lead the Pentagon on an acting basis in the early days of Biden’s presidency without a Senate-confirmed Defense secretary. Chris Miller has held the job since early November after Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Deputy Secretary David Norquist or another senior Pentagon official could also be asked to stay on in the early days of the new administration until Austin is confirmed. Bob Work, the deputy secretary during the Obama administration, stayed on for several months in the Trump administration until a Pentagon deputy was confirmed.

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