By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) – President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday will formally introduce his pick for defense secretary, retired Army General Lloyd Austin, amid concern from some in Congress that the Pentagon should be led by a civilian rather than a career officer.
Austin, who would be the country’s first Black secretary of defense, 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 U.S. troops across the Middle East.
But his nomination could prompt a complicated confirmation process after at least two Democratic senators expressed opposition to waiving a law that requires top military brass to have been out of the armed forces for at least seven years before running the Pentagon. Austin, 67, retired in 2016.
Biden, a Democrat, urged the U.S. Senate to waive the law and “swiftly” confirm Austin in an essay published on Tuesday by The Atlantic magazine.
The former vice president praised Austin’s work under pressure, noted the historic nature of his appointment and said Austin shared with him a commitment to using force only as a last resort.
“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. “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 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.
On Tuesday, as he introduced members of his public health team, Biden vowed to distribute 100 million 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 283,000 in the United States.
Biden also plans to nominate Marcia Fudge, a Black congresswoman from Ohio, as his housing and urban development secretary, and Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor, as agriculture secretary, according to news reports. Vilsack held the same role during the Obama administration.
Trump still refuses to concede the Nov. 3 election, claiming without evidence that the results were “rigged” by widespread fraud. On Tuesday, the state of Texas filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the outcome in four other states, a lawsuit that legal experts said had little chance of success.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Peter Cooney)