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New in 2021: Biden’s defense secretary pick faces some hurdles

President-elect Joe Biden announced in early December his selection of retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who last served as the head of U.S. Central Command in 2016, for the Pentagon’s top job. The choice was met with resounding concern, because it would make Biden’s the second administration in a row to tap a recently retired four-star to lead the Defense Department as a civilian.

Both Biden and Austin have emphasized their respect for the tradition of a civilian-led military, with Biden emphasizing that Austin’s experience working with allies makes him a fit for this time in U.S. foreign policy.

“It is an important distinction, and one that I make with utmost seriousness and sincerity,” Austin said during the Dec. 9 announcement of his selection. “I recognize that being a member of the president’s Cabinet requires a different perspective and unique responsibilities from a career in uniform. And I intend to keep this at the forefront of my mind.”

But feedback from members of Congress may preview a rough confirmation after Biden takes office Jan. 20. In addition to receiving a majority of Senate votes, Austin will need a waiver to be considered for defense secretary because the law requires a nominee be seven years out of uniform at the time of confirmation.

“...(the) Mattis waiver was supposed to be a one off, not the start of a trend that’s bad for civ-mil relations,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a Marine Corps veteran, wrote on Twitter Dec. 7, speaking of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, as well as a former CENTCOM commander.

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