The Senate confirmed retired Army General Lloyd Austin as defense secretary on Friday, making him the first Black leader of the US military and the second member of President Joe Biden's cabinet to win approval.
The 93-2 vote came the day after both the House and Senate waived a law barring service members from leading the Pentagon within seven years of retiring. Austin, who rose through the ranks to command US forces in the Middle East, retired in 2016.
"Mr. Austin will be the first African-American to ever helm the Defence Department in its history, a powerful symbol of the diversity and history of America's armed forces," Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor. "Mr. Austin has a storied career in the Army, but those days are behind him. As secretary of defence he promised to empower and lift up his civilian staff, and I believe that he will be an outstanding secretary of defense for everyone at the Pentagon."
Austin's confirmation followed Senate approval on Wednesday for Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence. The Senate traditionally has sought to act on national security nominees quickly after a new president takes office to send a message of stability to allies and adversaries. Senate leaders were negotiating to resolve objections to taking up the nomination of Antony Blinken as secretary of state.
Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Austin's confirmation "an extraordinary historic moment."
"A significant portion of our military forces today are African-American," Reed said. "Now they can see themselves at the very top of the Department of Defense, which makes real the notion of opportunity, which is the bedrock of this country."
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday cited circumstances from the coronavirus and the "insurrection assault on the Capitol" to "the undermining of the Pentagon by the previous president" as requiring rapid confirmation.
Austin will lead a military where 40 per cent of the active-duty force is people of color. In addition to overseeing military strategy and weapons spending, the new defense secretary will face festering social policy issues.
These include evidence that some current and former military personnel belong to right-wing extremist groups that participated in the attack on the Capitol, efforts to eliminate symbols of the Confederacy from military bases and the military's failure to effectively curb and punish sexual assaults.
First, though, Austin had to win the waiver from the law that's intended to preserve civilian control of the military.
In 2017, Congress approved a waiver for Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, to serve as former President Donald Trump's first defense secretary. Lawmakers of both parties said at the time - and have repeated now - that such exemptions should be rare.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor that he supported Austin despite concern about the waiver issue, calling him a "clear patriot with an impressive career" who is committed to "balance civilian-military relations."
Testifying before Senate Armed Services on Tuesday, Austin, 67, pledged to respect civilian control of the military.
"I know that being a member of the president's cabinet - a political appointee - requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform," Austin told the committee. "So, if confirmed, you can expect me to empower my civilian staff."