WASHINGTON — The Senate on Friday confirmed Lloyd J. Austin III as defense secretary, filling a critical national security position in President Biden’s cabinet and elevating the first Black American in the country’s history to lead the Pentagon.
The 93-to-2 vote came a day after Congress swiftly moved to grant Mr. Austin, a retired four-star Army general, a special waiver to hold the post, which is required for any defense secretary who has been out of active-duty military service for fewer than seven years. It reflected a bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill that it was urgent for Mr. Biden to have his Pentagon pick installed, a step normally taken on a new president’s first day.
“It’s an extraordinary, historic moment,” said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and the incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “A significant portion of our armed forces today are African-Americans or Latinos, and now they can see themselves at the very top of the Department of Defense, which makes real the notion of opportunity.”
Mr. Austin, 67, is the only African-American to have led the United States Central Command, the military’s marquee combat command, with responsibility for Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria. He retired in 2016 after 41 years in the military, and is widely respected across the Army.
In taking the helm at the Pentagon, Mr. Austin will face numerous global and domestic threats at once, including an increasingly muscular China, and aggressive Russia, pandemics and a climate crisis, all at a time of potentially shrinking resources. He has vowed to tackle the persistent problems of sexual assault and political extremism in the ranks that so many secretaries before him denounced but did little to quell. Civilian dominance of the military, a political cornerstone of the department since its inception, was strained during the Trump administration with a commander in chief who sought to politicize its role until the very end of his term.
Shortly after he was confirmed, Mr. Austin arrived at the Pentagon to meet with senior military officials, a Defense Department spokesman said. He will receive a briefing on the department’s activities aimed at combating the coronavirus pandemic and hold a call with Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, later on Friday, the spokesman said.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense, and I’m especially proud to be the first African American to hold the position,” Mr. Austin wrote on Twitter. “Let’s get to work.”
Lawmakers in both parties initially were uneasy at the prospect of granting Mr. Austin an exception to the statutory bar against recently retired military personnel serving as Pentagon chiefs, a law intended to maintain civilian control of the military. They had already done so four years ago for Jim Mattis, President Donald J. Trump’s first defense secretary and a retired four-star Marine officer, and many had vowed then not to do so again.
But facing intense pressure from officials from Mr. Biden’s transition team and top Democrats, and after receiving assurances from Mr. Austin that he was committed to the principles of civilian control, the majority of lawmakers brushed aside their concerns and threw their support behind a barrier-shattering nominee.
Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, was among those lobbying his colleagues to make the exception. He said doing so was worthwhile because Mr. Biden had too few incoming senior officials with prior military service.
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“I think that argument persuaded some of my colleagues,” said Mr. Sullivan, who shares a military history with Mr. Austin and introduced the retired general at his confirmation hearing.
“The person who got Lloyd Austin confirmed,” Mr. Sullivan said, “was Lloyd Austin.”
Two Republicans, Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Josh Hawley of Missouri, voted against the confirmation. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, supported him, but added a note of caution in remarks from the Senate floor.
“The Senate should pause and reflect on the fact that we will have begun two consecutive presidential administrations by issuing a waiver to a four-star general and former Centcom commander to lead the Pentagon,” Mr. McConnell said.
The vote was the first time since the elder President George Bush that an incoming president has not had a defense secretary installed at the Pentagon on the first day, a distinction that Democratic leaders were acutely aware of as they rushed to confirm Mr. Austin. The Senate on Wednesday confirmed another key national security official, Avril D. Haines, as director of national intelligence, and Democrats hoped to confirm Antony Blinken as secretary of state as early as Friday afternoon.
Even though 43 percent of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty in the United States are people of color, the leaders at the top of the military’s chain of command have remained remarkably white and male. When President Barack Obama selected Mr. Austin to lead Central Command, he became one of the highest-ranked Black men in the military, second only to Colin L. Powell, who had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Representative Anthony G. Brown, Democrat of Maryland and a Black retired colonel in the Army Reserve, noted that the position of secretary of defense was created in 1947 — just nine months before President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces.
“Secretary Austin’s confirmation is a historic first and symbolizes the culmination of the nearly 75-year march toward genuine integration of the department,” Mr. Brown said. “He is well positioned to draw upon his experiences as a seasoned military commander, respected leader and as a Black man who grew up amid segregation to drive progress forward as our next secretary of defense.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
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