Lloyd J. Austin, a West Point graduate who rose to the army’s elite ranks and marched through racial barriers in a 41-year career, won Senate confirmation Friday to become the first Black secretary of defence of the United States.
Janet Yellen is also expected to be approved as the nation’s 78th treasury secretary, though a final vote has not been scheduled. It could happen as soon as Monday.
The administration is urging a quick confirmation vote in the full Senate, saying it’s critical to get the top member of Biden’s economic team in place as the Democratic president seeks to win approval of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan.
President Joe Biden’s cabinet is starting to take shape. Earlier this week, Avril Haines was confirmed as the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. Biden is also expected to win approval for others on his national security team in the coming days, including Antony Blinken as secretary of state.
Austin charged with restoring stability at Pentagon
The Democratic president is looking for Austin, 67, to restore stability at the Pentagon, which went through two Senate-confirmed secretaries of defence and four who held the post on an interim basis during the Trump administration.
Austin’s confirmation by a vote of 93-2 was complicated by his status as a recently retired general. He required a waiver of a legal prohibition on a military officer serving as secretary of defence within seven years of retirement.
He will have to contend not only with a world of security threats and a massive military bureaucracy, but also with a challenge that hits closer to home: rooting out racism and extremism in the ranks.
The retired four-star Army general told senators this week that the Pentagon’s job is to “keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
Austin retired in 2016 after serving as the first Black general to head U.S. Central Command. He was the first Black vice chief of staff of the army in 2012 and also served as director of the Joint Staff, a behind-the-scenes job that gave him an intimate view of the Pentagon’s inner workings.
A large man with a booming voice and a tendency to shy from publicity, describes himself as the son of a postal worker and a homemaker from Thomasville, Ga. He has promised to speak his mind to Congress and to Biden.
The racism issue is personal for Austin. At Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, he explained why.
In 1995, when he was a lieutenant colonel serving with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., three white soldiers, described as self-styled skinheads, were arrested in the murder of a Black couple who was walking down the street. Investigators concluded the two were targeted because of their race.
The killing triggered an internal investigation. All told, 22 soldiers were linked to skinhead and other similar groups or found to hold extremist views. They included 17 who were considered white supremacists or separatists.
“We woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks,” Austin told the Senate armed services committee.
“And they did bad things that we certainly held them accountable for. But we discovered that the signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn’t know what to look for or what to pay attention to.”
Yellen to become treasury secretary
The Senate finance committee approved Biden’s nomination of Yellen to be the nation’s 78th treasury secretary on Friday. The finance committee approved her nomination 26-0.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon and the finance committee’s incoming chairman, said he hoped to get Yellen’s nomination approved by the full Senate later Friday, which would make her the first woman to hold the job.
Republicans on the committee said they had a number of policy disagreements with Yellen and the Biden administration in such areas as raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, but believed it was important to allow Biden to quickly assemble his economic team.
At her confirmation hearing before the committee on Tuesday, Yellen, 74, had argued that without prompt action the nation faced the threat of a “longer, more painful recession.”
She urged quick action on the package that would provide an additional $1,400 in payments to individuals making below $75,000 annually, as well as providing expanded unemployment benefits, further aid for small businesses, and support for cities and states to prevent layoffs.
The plan also provides more support for vaccine production and distribution.
During the hearing, Yellen faced substantial push back on the plan from Republicans on the committee who argued that the package was too large. They also objected to such measures as increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
As treasury secretary, Yellen, 74, would occupy a pivotal role in shaping and directing Biden’s economic policies. She would enter the Treasury job after many years serving in other top economic jobs including becoming the first woman to serve as chair of the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018.