President-elect Biden’s transition team is making a full-court press to get his national security team confirmed quickly by the new Democratic-led Senate, even as a Senate panel heard arguments on whether Defense Secretary-designate Lloyd Austin deserves a waiver to take the job after his long career in the military.
All eyes were on Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, Tuesday, as he informally chaired his first Armed Services Committee hearing of the 117th Congress. The topic: civilian control of the Pentagon, as the panel weighs the confirmation of Mr. Biden’s pick, retired Army Gen. Austin, to lead the Pentagon.
With the selection of veteran diplomat William Burns to head the CIA Monday, Mr. Biden has his top diplomatic, intelligence and homeland security picks in place. But there is concern that the tiny Senate Democratic majority — and a possible impeachment trial for President Trump — could gum up the confirmation process.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called for a swift confirmation of national security leaders in the wake of last week’s insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
In a letter obtained by the Associated Press, the New York Democrat said Tuesday that the recent violence in Washington shows the need to confirm Mr. Biden’s national security team on “Day 1” of the new administration.
The Jan. 6 incident “showed us we need qualified Senate-confirmed people [not in an acting capacity] in key national security positions” immediately after Mr. Biden is inaugurated including secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, secretary of state, attorney general and others, Mr. Schumer wrote.
Because he retired from military service just five years ago, Gen. Austin by law needs a special congressional waiver from both the House and Senate to head the Pentagon.
“Civil military relations are never static and must constantly be tended to,” Mr. Reed said Tuesday, arguing that the civilian-military relationship had “eroded significantly” during Mr. Trump’s four-year term.
In January 2017, a GOP-led House and Senate voted to bypass the National Security Act of 1947 for former Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, Mr. Trump’s first defense secretary. Although Gen. Austin received bipartisan praise Tuesday for his service as the commander of U.S. Central Command and his 40-year military career, lawmakers remain divided over whether to grant another waiver for the second time in four years.
“Civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle in our country since its founding,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat. “I believe in this principle deeply.”
‘The principle of civilian control of the military,” added Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Illinois Democrat and an Iraq War veteran, “is bigger than any one person, his personal experiences or resume.”
Lindsey Cohn, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, told the panel that she believes granting two waivers in such a short time “will seriously weaken the norm of this being an exception rather than the rule.”
Mr. Reed said recent events only underscored the need for speed in confirming to the Biden team, including Anthony Blinken as secretary of state and Alejandro Mayorkas as head of the Department of Homeland Security.
The Senate often confirms some nominees on the day the new president takes office, but the delay in deciding the Nov. 3 vote and last week’s traumatizing events have put that fast track in question.
Mr. Biden has said that his nominees to lead key posts at the Defense, State, Treasury and Homeland Security department need to be in their jobs “as soon as possible after January 20th.”
Cabinet nominees need 51 votes for confirmation. Republicans currently control the upper chamber, but control will flip after the Democratic victors in two Georgia special elections are seated Jan. 20 along with Mr. Biden.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing on Jan. 19 for retired Gen. Austin. If confirmed, he would be the first black defense secretary.
The GOP-led Senate voted to confirm Gen. Mattis as defense secretary and John Kelly as homeland security secretary hours after President Trump was sworn into office four years ago.
⦁ David Sherfinski contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire reports.