Biden pick for defense secretary faces Democratic pushback over recent Army service

Reuters , Wednesday 9 Dec 2020

The nomination of Austin requires both houses of Congress to waive a law requiring the military's top brass to have been out of the armed forces for at least seven years before running the Pentagon

US President-elect Joe Biden announces the members of his health team, including his pick for secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, at the Queen Theater December 08, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo: AFP)

President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday will introduce his pick for defense secretary, a post that traditionally goes to a civilian, amid concern among some Democrats in Congress about retired Army General Lloyd Austin's recent military career.

The nomination of Austin, who would be the country's first Black secretary of defense, requires both houses of Congress to waive a law requiring the military's top brass to have been out of the armed forces for at least seven years before running the Pentagon. Austin, 67, retired in 2016.

At least two Democratic US senators - Richard Blumenthal and Jon Tester - say they would oppose a waiver, casting doubt on whether Austin can pass a closely divided Senate.

Austin has built a reputation as an intensely private man who avoided the spotlight during a distinguished four-decade career in uniform, including a stint as head of the military's Central Command, which oversees US troops across the Middle East.

Biden, a Democrat, has urged that Austin be "swiftly" confirmed, and said Austin shared with him a commitment to using force only as a last resort. The president-elect is scheduled to present Austin at a news conference in Wilmington, Delaware, at 1.30 p.m. (1830 GMT).

"The fact is, Austin's many strengths and his intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government are uniquely matched to the challenges and crises we face," Biden wrote in an essay published by The Atlantic magazine. "He is the person we need in this moment."

President Donald Trump's first defense secretary, retired Marine General Jim Mattis, required a waiver as well.

Biden will nominate Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor, as agriculture secretary, according to two sources familiar with the decision. Vilsack held the same role during the Obama administration.

He also plans to nominate Marcia Fudge, a Black congresswoman from Ohio, as his housing and urban development secretary, according to news reports.

Biden will take office on Jan. 20 and is likely to spend much of his first few months focused on the coronavirus pandemic and the struggling economy.

Four members of his economic team, including Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen and Office of Management and Budget director nominee Neera Tanden, were due to meet virtually with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday morning, according to a senior Democratic aide, as they prepare for confirmation hearings.

The other nominees include Wally Adeyemo for deputy Treasury secretary and Celia Rouse, who would chair the Council of Economic Advisers.

On Tuesday, as Biden introduced members of his public health team, he vowed to distribute 100 million coronavirus vaccines in his first 100 days and to make reopening schools a "national priority." He again implored Americans to wear masks to slow the spread of the virus.

Biden's health and human services secretary nominee, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, will help oversee the government's response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 286,000 in the United States.

The state of Texas has filed a petition with the US Supreme Court challenging the election outcome in four other states, a lawsuit that legal experts said had little chance of success.

On Tuesday, the nation's highest court refused to block Pennsylvania from formalizing Biden's victory there, rejecting a request to hear an argument that the state's 2019 expansion of mail-in voting was illegal.

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