U.S. Congress moves toward approving Biden's defense secretary pick

FILE PHOTO: President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Defense Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin answers questions during his confirmation before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, January 19, 2021. Greg Nash/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate backed a waiver on Thursday that paved the way for President Joe Biden's nominee, Lloyd Austin, to lead the Pentagon even though he has not cleared the required seven-year waiting period since leaving the military.

Austin, who retired as an army general in 2016, would be the first Black U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The House of Representatives approved the waiver by 326 to 78, far more than the simple majority necessary. In a show of support for the nomination, the Senate took the unusual step of voting almost immediately after the House. The Senate tally was 69 to 27, more than the 60 "ayes" required.

A Senate vote on Austin's confirmation was scheduled for Friday morning.

Democrats - who now control both the House and Senate - want to do everything possible to get Biden's national security team into place as quickly as possible, overcoming concerns about civilian control of the military.

Biden took office on Wednesday.

Congress has only approved waivers for recently retired nominees twice before. But the last time was only four years ago, when former President Donald Trump's first defense secretary, retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, also needed - and received - a waiver.

Despite concerns about civilian control of the military, Austin had a smooth Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Two weeks after rioters stormed the Capitol in an effort to overturn Trump's defeat in the Nov. 3 election, Austin said he would work to get rid of "racists and extremists" from the ranks.

Officials have expressed dismay that several of the rioters arrested and charged - some of whom used military tactics - have served in the armed forces.

"Our country faces a myriad of national security challenges, and President Biden deserves the cabinet of his choosing as his administration seeks to address these challenges," House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith said in a statement.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali and Makini Brice; Editing by Will Dunham and Daniel Wallis)

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