The panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, announced Thursday that Austin’s confirmation hearing will take place on January 19, one day before Biden is sworn into office, but House lawmakers are not expected to vote on a waiver that would allow him to serve as defense secretary until after inauguration day, according to a Democratic committee aide.
Congressional sources previously told CNN sources they 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.
While Austin’s Senate hearing on January 19 should provide some clarity about his fate, it is only the first hurdle he will face in the confirmation process due to concerns from the incoming President’s own party about allowing another recently retired general to assume the top civilian post at the Pentagon.
CNN previously reported that 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.
A number of top Democrats praised Austin’s service and credentials, and the historic nature of his pick, since he would be the first African American to run the department.
But some of Biden’s closest allies were squeamish — if not outright opposed — to granting a waiver from a law requiring a secretary to wait seven years from active duty service to take the top civilian post.
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 last month, 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.”
“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,” Smith added at the time.
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.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.