WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 nation's first Black secretary of defense.
The 93-2 vote gave President Joe Biden his second Cabinet member; Avril Haines was confirmed Wednesday as the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. Biden is expected to win approval for others on his national security team in coming days, including Antony Blinken as secretary of state.
Biden is looking for Austin to restore stability atop the Pentagon, which went through two Senate-confirmed secretaries of defense and four who held the post on an interim basis during the Trump administration. The only senators who voted against Austin were Republicans Mike Lee, of Utah, and Josh Hawley, of Missouri.
Before heading to the Pentagon, Austin wrote on Twitter he is especially proud to be the first Black secretary of defense. "Let's get to work," he wrote.
And a short time later, he arrived at the Pentagon's River Entrance, where he was greeted by holdover Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, who has been the acting secretary since Wednesday, and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He was sworn in and was to receive an intelligence briefing, then confer with senior civilian and military officials on the COVID-19 crisis. He also planned to speak by phone with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and to receive briefings about China and the Middle East.
Some of the global problems on Austin's plate are familiar to him, including one of the thorniest — Afghanistan. The White House said Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told his Afghan counterpart in a phone call Friday the new administration will "review" the February 2020 deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban that requires the U.S. to withdraw all of its troops by May.
Trump ordered U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan cut to 2,500 just days before he left office, presenting Biden with decisions about how to retain leverage against the Taliban in support of peace talks.
Austin's confirmation 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 defense within seven years of retirement. 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.
The House and the Senate approved the waiver Thursday, clearing the way for the Senate confirmation vote.
Austin, 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, Georgia. He has promised to speak his mind to Congress and to Biden.