WASHINGTON — The Senate on Friday voted overwhelmingly to confirm the first Black secretary of defense, retired four-star Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who first needed Congress to approve a waiver for him to fill the Cabinet position.
Lawmakers voted 93-2 in a final floor vote. Two Republicans, Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Lee of Utah, were the only members to vote no.
President Joe Biden’s nomination of Austin, 67, troubled some Democrats because his retirement from the military happened less than seven years ago, the minimum period of time a civilian is required to wait to lead the Defense Department. Austin retired in 2016.
The House and Senate quickly approved the waiver for Austin on Thursday. Only two other nominees have been granted such a waiver: George C. Marshall, in the Truman administration, and James Mattis, in the Trump administration.
Austin, who served in the Army for more than four decades, was commander of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016 under President Barack Obama, leading the U.S. military’s strategy in the Middle East and Central and South Asia.
Austin is the second Biden nominee to be confirmed since the president’s inauguration on Wednesday. The Senate confirmed Avril Haines as the director of national intelligence that day.
In testimony at his confirmation hearing this week, Austin said that the “most immediate” challenge facing the U.S. is the coronavirus pandemic. He said that he would “fight hard” to “rid our ranks of racists and extremists.” Austin also said he would overturn the Trump administration’s ban on transgender military service, which Trump first ordered by tweet in 2017.
Biden wrote in an essay for The Atlantic magazine in December that he and Austin “share a commitment to empowering our diplomats and development experts to lead our foreign policy, using force only as our last resort.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., voted to confirm Austin but said he opposed the waiver because he believes it’s a “bad idea” to repeatedly break the military-civilian separation norm. He said Mattis’ waiver was an “extraordinary” circumstance because he was “uniquely positioned” to help the Trump administration navigate the challenges at the time.
“Team Biden is going to have a whole bunch of competent people,” Sasse said Thursday.
The Senate is expected to vote soon on the nominations of Antony Blinken for secretary of state and Janet Yellen for treasury secretary. The Senate Finance Committee unanimously reported Yellen’s nomination to the floor Friday morning in a 26-0 vote.
Dareh Gregorian and Sahil Kapur contributed.