Austin Arrives at Pentagon; Votes on State, Treasury Could Come Today
WASHINGTON: Lloyd Austin arrived at the Pentagon just after noon today, minutes after the Senate confirmed him as the 28th Secretary of Defense by an overwhelming 93-2 vote. Austin, former commander of the Central Command, is the first African American to lead the department.
Austin’s swift and decisive confirmation came after both houses of Congress voted Thursday to grant him a waiver to the law that bars retired military officers from serving as secretary for seven years.
The bipartisan vote is an important early win for the Biden administration, which is rushing to staff up after a delayed transition.
The vote gave President Joe Biden just his second Cabinet member since Avril Haines was confirmed Wednesday as the first woman to serve as Director of National Intelligence. The Senate is moving quickly to vote on Antony Blinken as Secretary of State and Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary. Those votes may happen today.
Austin’s first actions and meetings are a nod to his priorities entering the department. After meeting with Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, he’ll convene a COVID briefing with Norquist, Milley, all of the service secretaries and chiefs, as well as the Combatant Commanders.
His first phone call will be with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, followed by operational briefings about China and the Middle East.
“It’s an extraordinary, historic moment,” said Sen, Jack Reed, 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 very top of the Department of Defense, which makes real the notion of opportunity.”
The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe, said “the world today is getting even more dangerous, in large part because of the malign influence of China and Russia. Today’s vote to confirm Austin as Secretary of Defense sends a strong signal to all Americans, to our allies and partners, and, most significantly, to our potential adversaries that Congress is committed to strengthening national security.”
During his nomination hearing in front of Reed and Inhofe’s committee on Monday, Austin affirmed there will likely be a significant amount of continuity in policies to confront China and modernize the military between his tenure and the Trump administration.
Strategically, Austin pledged to publish a new National Defense Strategy in 2022, updating the 2018 version. That report, produced by then-secretary Jim Mattis, re-oriented Washington’s focus on a rising China.
Austin told senators that the plan forged by Mattis remains “absolutely on track” but that DoD should “work to update the strategy.” In written responses to questions submitted by senators before the hearing, the retired general put it simply: “China is the top priority. I am also concerned about transnational threats as the security landscape evolves (e.g., amid COVID-19) and believe that our defense strategy must adapt accordingly. As required by law, if confirmed I will review the NDS and where necessary revise or update it in the 2022 National Defense Strategy.”