WASHINGTON ― Plans for defense secretary nominee Lloyd Austin to testify before the House Armed Services Committee as a prerequisite for his waiver have been replaced by a closed-door meeting, Defense News has learned.
The hearing wasn’t feasible because the full committee’s membership in the new Congress won’t have been named and seated before Thursday’s scheduled hearing. House is set to vote Thursday on Austin’s waiver, it was subsequently announced.
“The committee cannot formally organize until leadership from both the majority and minority have named the full list of members” said Monica Matoush, a Democratic spokesperson for the committee. “As such, we cannot yet convene our committee organization meeting or formally conduct committee business like a hearing. Once members have been named and the committee has been organized, we will proceed.”
The closed meeting could help speed Austin’s nomination, but it may rankle panel members who called for a public hearing to hear from the former Army general on civilian control of the military.
President-elect Joe Biden and Democratic allies want to bypass a law barring recently retired generals from holding the civilian job ― with new urgency since the Jan. 6 violence at the Capitol.
Subsequent security measures at the Capitol have contributed to delays surrounding the House Republican Conference’s meetings to name its members to committees, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Those meetings are expected to proceed Thursday and Friday.
The position of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., had been that lawmakers should directly hear from Austin in a public hearing. He had supported the hearing and has been vocal in his support for Austin, citing the riots but also the nominee’s potential to become the country’s first Black defense secretary.
“Blocking [Austin’s] confirmation will send a false, dangerous message that Congress believes a highly qualified African American is unable to do the job — that would be a grave mistake,” he said in a tweet Monday night.
In 2016, Smith opposed a waiver for Jim Mattis after the retired general didn’t appear for a committee hearing ahead of the vote. Under a Republican majority, the House voted 268-151, with only 36 Democrats voting in favor.
The change in plans comes as growing opposition from conservatives suggests Democrats may be unable to rely on Republican votes. Smith has worked to unify Democrats and lobbied them in a letter Monday to support the waiver he introduced last week.
“I share the concerns of many that we must be sure to maintain strong civilian control of the military, as required in our Constitution,” Smith said in the letter. “I have spoken with Secretary-designate Austin multiple times since his nomination, and I am one hundred percent convinced that he understands this crucial principle and that he is completely committed to upholding it.”
Austin’s formal Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing is set for Jan. 19.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.