Austin, who retired in 2016, has begun reaching out to top House and Senate lawmakers who will first have to agree to pass legislation to grant a waiver from a law requiring a secretary to wait seven years from active duty service before taking the top civilian post, something only granted twice before in history, including for James Mattis to run President Donald Trump’s Pentagon in 2017.
Austin will, in effect, have to win two votes: One from both chambers of Congress to grant the waiver, and another from the Senate to confirm him for the position. Congressional sources believe that Austin — who would be the first African American to run the Pentagon — has a strong chance of being confirmed, but first needs to emerge unscathed when facing pointed questions from lawmakers.
Behind the scenes, Austin himself has tried to reassure senators and House members about his belief in civilian control of the Defense Department, lawmakers say.
Austin has even told Rep. Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, that he is willing to answer questions and testify publicly about the waiver to reassure lawmakers about his belief in civilian control. Mattis did not testify before the panel about the waiver issue because the Trump administration forbid him from doing so, a move that prompted Smith to vote against granting the waiver. Just 36 House Democrats at the time backed the Mattis waiver.
“I talked to (Mattis), and he said he was perfectly willing to come before the House Armed Services Committee and talk to us, but the Trump administration said ‘no.’ So he didn’t. That’s the big difference,” Smith said, telling CNN that Austin assured him that he’s willing to testify before his panel on the matter. “The Biden people have told me that they’re willing to let him.”
Smith added: “I want to support President Biden, obviously, and I think very highly of General Austin. I do want to hear from him on the issue of civilian control.”
If such a hearing does indeed occur, it’s possible that Austin could face a grilling from House lawmakers and separately from senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee, unusual for presidential nominees who just have to win Senate confirmation to serve in their posts.
Privately, the Biden team has begun to reach out to more than 100 House and Senate offices on the waiver issue, a source familiar with the matter said. One of them is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is meeting via Zoom with Austin this week — even though she is opposed to voting for the waiver.
Asked if she’s open to ultimately voting for Austin’s confirmation, Warren wouldn’t say.
“I’m looking forward to meeting him,” Warren told CNN. “He’s a man with a very distinguished career, and I’m looking forward to having a chance to talk to him.”
In the end, aides to Biden believe the history-making nature of Austin’s candidacy will prevail. Yet his performance in confirmation hearings — and leading up to that point — will determine that.
Rep. James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, has urged his fellow lawmakers to grant Austin a waiver and to confirm his nomination. A stream of endorsements have also poured in since Biden introduced him last week as his choice for defense secretary, including from former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
“I think the precedent has been set for that,” said Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, who called on Congress to approve the waiver. “He’s been out for year — or more than that. So the precedent has already been set. There’s nothing groundbreaking about that.”