Three Democratic senators oppose waiver for Austin for defense secretary

December 9, 2020: Three Democratic senators said they will oppose a waiver for retired Gen. Lloyd Austin III to serve as secretary of defense.

Former Vice President Joe Biden (D) is the projected winner of the 2020 presidential election. The Electoral College will meet on December 14, 2020, to vote for the next president of the United States.

In 2016, there were 1,714 government positions subject to presidential appointment: 1,242 positions required Senate confirmation and 472 did not. The new administration is also responsible for filling thousands of other positions across the federal government, including in operations and policy. Every weekday, Ballotpedia is tracking potential Cabinet nominees, appointments, and news related to the Biden presidential transition.

Appointments and Nominations

Lloyd Austin III, secretary of defense

Biden formally announced retired Gen. Lloyd Austin III as his nominee for secretary of defense on Tuesday. Biden also wrote an op-ed in The Atlantic about his selection.

Austin began his military service in 1975 as an infantry second lieutenant and advanced to a four-star general. He was involved in several major operations, including Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and New Dawn. He served as commander of the U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016, where he led the campaign against the Islamic State.

If nominated, Austin would require a congressional waiver to serve as secretary of defense. Federal law prohibits a commissioned officer from filling this position if he or she is appointed within seven years of active duty. Gen. Jim Mattis received this waiver in 2017 by a vote of 81-17 in the Senate and 268-151 in the House.

Three Democratic senators said they would not support a waiver for Austin: Richard Blumenthal (Ct.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Jon Tester (Mont.). 

If confirmed, Austin will be the first Black secretary of defense in U.S. history. 


  • Biden is expected to select Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) for secretary of housing and urban development. NPR reported, “Biden chose Fudge because of her track record as both a mayor of a Cleveland suburb and a lawmaker championing affordable housing and urban revitalization, and her ideas for addressing poverty and issues of inequality through the department’s programs.” Fudge’s district, Ohio’s 11th, is rated Safe Democratic. House vacancies are filled by special elections.
  • Biden is also expected to pick former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) to serve as secretary of agriculture. Vilsack held this role during all eight years of the Obama administration. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said that he approved of Vilsack’s tenure and “if he was in for another four years it’d be OK with me.”
  • Axios reported that former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) was in consideration for ambassador to China. They said that “initial conversations over leading the Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t firm up, while Buttigieg’s name is still mentioned among those under consideration for other domestic posts, including Transportation or Commerce.”

Transition in Context: What does the vice president do?

The vice president has two constitutionally established duties: to succeed the president of the United States if he or she dies, resigns, or is removed, and to serve as president of the Senate.

Nine vice presidents have become president by succession: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald Ford.

As president of the Senate, a vice president also casts the tie-breaking vote if the Senate is deadlocked. Vice President Mike Pence (R) has done so 13 times during the Trump administration. Biden cast none while vice president. John C. Calhoun set the record for the most tie-breaking votes with 31. 

Vice presidential historian and professor Joel Goldstein said the vice presidency became more robust in the 20th century. He said, “Whereas the vice president’s role previously had been to be one heartbeat away in case something happened to the president, beginning with Vice President Mondale, the vice president’s principal role became not to be a presidential successor but to try and help the president succeed in effectively governing the United States of America.”

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