New cracks emerge among Democrats over Biden’s Pentagon pick

President-elect Joe Biden’s historic choice for secretary of defense is running into hurdles on Capitol Hill, as key Democrats express concerns publicly and privately about whether installing a retired four-star general at the helm of the Pentagon further erodes civilian oversight of the military.

Seth Moulton, an influential member of the House Armed Services Committee, on Wednesday became the most prominent House Democrat to say he will not vote to grant retired Gen. Lloyd Austin a waiver to the law barring recently retired military officers from serving as defense secretary.

“Civilian control of the military is fundamental to our democracy so I don’t think this is the time to make an exception,” Moulton, a Marine veteran of the Iraq War who also ran for president, told POLITICO on Wednesday, “I am taking a vote on principle.”

“Almost by definition a recently retired general is by all intents and purposes thinking like a general”, he added.

Moulton, who has publicly supported former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy for the job, said the Pentagon needs “a strong, reform-minded leader who is not afraid to tell the military what they may not want to hear”.

In a statement to POLITICO, a transition spokesperson defended Biden's choice of Austin as "the right leader at this unique moment", and noted that bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress set a "strong" precedent by voting to give Mattis a waiver.

"Secretary-Designate Austin is sharing his vision for strengthening and depoliticizing the Defense Department, and Senators and Congressmembers will have no doubt of his support for our troops and their families, revitalizing our alliances to address China, and keeping our country safe", the spokesperson said, "He shares the President-Elect's belief in strong and empowered civilian voices shaping the Department of Defense’s policies alongside military leaders, and in ensuring that our defense policies are accountable to the American people."

Moulton’s decision comes amid growing concerns among Biden’s advisers that pushing the waiver only four years after one was granted to retired Gen. Jim Mattis will be more difficult than expected, two people familiar with the discussions said.

Several Democratic members who have met with Austin in recent weeks have been underwhelmed, said three other people who are aware of the interactions. They, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

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