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Senate confirms Austin in landmark vote, installs first black Secretary of Defense

WASHINGTON – The Senate on Friday confirmed Lloyd J. Austin III as Secretary of Defense, holding a national security critical post in President Biden’s cabinet and elevating the first black American in the country’s history to lead the Pentagon .

The 93-2 vote came a day after Congress quickly decided to grant retired four-star army general Mr. Austin a special waiver to fill the post, which is required for all Secretary of Defense who has not been active. military service in service for less than seven years. This reflected a bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill that there was an urgent need for Mr. Biden to have his choice of Pentagon installed, a step normally taken on the first day of a new president.

“This is an extraordinary and historic moment,” said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and incoming Chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “A significant portion of our armed forces today are African Americans or Latinos, and now they can see themselves at the top of the Department of Defense, which makes the notion of opportunity real.

Mr Austin, 67, is the only African-American to have led United States Central Command, the military’s flagship combat command responsible for Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria. He retired in 2016 after 41 years in the military and is widely respected throughout the military.

As he takes the reins of the Pentagon, Mr. Austin will face many global and national threats at the same time, including an increasingly muscular China and an aggressive Russia, pandemics and a climate crisis, all at a time when the resources could decrease. He has vowed to tackle lingering issues of sexual assault and political extremism in the ranks that so many secretaries before him have denounced but have done little to quell. Civilian dominance of the military, the political cornerstone of the department since its inception, has been strained under the Trump administration with a commander-in-chief who sought to politicize his role until the very end of his term.

Shortly after his confirmation, Austin arrived at the Pentagon to meet with senior military officials, a Defense Department spokesperson said. He will receive a briefing on the department’s activities to combat the coronavirus pandemic and hold a call with Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, later on Friday, the spokesperson said. .

“It is an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense, and I am especially proud to be the first African American to hold this position,” said Mr. Austin. written on twitter. “Let’s get to work.”

At first, lawmakers on both sides were concerned about granting Mr. Austin an exception to the statutory ban on recently retired military personnel serving as Pentagon chiefs, a law intended to maintain civilian control. of the Army. They had already done it four years ago for Jim Mattis, first Secretary of Defense to President Donald J. Trump and retired four-star Navy officer, and many had sworn to themselves never to do so again.

But in the face of intense pressure from officials of Mr Biden’s transition team and the main Democrats, and after receiving assurances from Mr Austin that he was committed to the principles of civilian oversight, the majority of lawmakers have brushed aside their concerns and threw their support behind a barrier – the shining nominee.

Alaskan Republican Senator Dan Sullivan was among those pressuring his colleagues to make the exception. He said was worth it, as Mr Biden had too few incoming senior officials who had already done their military service.

“I think that argument has convinced some of my colleagues,” said Mr. Sullivan, who shares a military history with Mr. Austin and introduced the retired general during his confirmation hearing.

“The person who confirmed Lloyd Austin,” Mr. Sullivan said, “was Lloyd Austin.”

Two Republicans, Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Josh Hawley of Missouri, voted against the confirmation. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, supported him, but added a note of caution in Senate remarks.

“The Senate should pause and reflect on the fact that we will have started two consecutive presidential administrations by waiving a four-star general and former Centcom commander to lead the Pentagon,” McConnell said.

The vote was the first time since former President George Bush that a new president had not installed a Defense Secretary in the Pentagon on day one, a distinction Democratic leaders were keenly aware of when they rushed to confirm Mr. Austin. The Senate confirmed another key national security official, Avril D. Haines, as director of national intelligence on Wednesday, and Democrats hoped to confirm Antony Blinken as secretary of state as early as Friday afternoon.

Even though 43% of the 1.3 million active duty men and women in the United States are people of color, the leaders at the top of the military chain of command have remained remarkably white and masculine. When President Barack Obama chose Mr. Austin to lead central command, he became one of the highest ranked black men in the military, just behind Colin L. Powell, who had served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Representative Anthony G. Brown, Democrat of Maryland and retired Black Colonel in the Army Reserve, noted that the post of Secretary of Defense was created in 1947 – just nine months before President Harry S. Truman orders the desegregation of the armed forces.

“Secretary Austin’s confirmation is a historic first and symbolizes the culmination of the nearly 75-year march towards true integration of the department,” said Brown. “He is well positioned to build on his experiences as a seasoned military commander, respected leader and as a black man who grew up in apartheid to advance progress as the next Secretary of Defense.

Eric Schmitt contribution to reports.

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