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U.S. Senate confirms Lloyd Austin as Biden’s defence secretary

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 first Black secretary of defence of the United States.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s cabinet started to take shape as the day went on. Janet Yellen is also expected to be approved as the nation’s 78th treasury secretary on Friday. And earlier this week, Avril Haines was confirmed 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 the coming days, including Antony Blinken as secretary of state.

Austin charged with restoring stability at Pentagon

Biden is looking for Austin to restore stability at the Pentagon, which went through two Senate-confirmed secretaries of defence and four who held the post on an interim basis during the Trump administration.

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 defence 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.

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, Ga. He has promised to speak his mind to Congress and to Biden.

At his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Austin said he had not sought the nomination but was ready to lead the Pentagon without clinging to his military status and with full awareness that being a political appointee and cabinet member requires “a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform.”

Austin has promised to surround himself with qualified civilians. And he made clear at his confirmation hearing that he embraces Biden’s early focus on combatting the coronavirus pandemic.

“I will quickly review the department’s contributions to coronavirus relief efforts, ensuring we are doing everything we can — and then some — to help distribute vaccines across the country and to vaccinate our troops and preserve readiness,” he told the Senate armed services committee.

Yellen to become treasury secretary

The Senate finance committee approved Biden’s nomination of Yellen to be the nation’s 78th treasury secretary on Friday, and supporters said they hoped to get the full Senate to approve it later in the day, making her the first woman to hold the job.

Treasury Secretary-nominee Janet Yellen was the first woman to serve as chair of the Federal Reserve. She is also expected to be confirmed Friday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

The finance committee approved her nomination 26-0. The administration is urging a quick confirmation vote, saying it’s critical to get the top member of Biden’s economic team in place as the Democratic president seeks to win approval of a $1.9-trillion coronavirus relief plan.

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon and the finance committee’s incoming chairman, said he hoped to get Yellen’s nomination approved by the full Senate later Friday.

Republicans on the committee said they had a number of policy disagreements with Yellen and the Biden administration in such areas as raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, but believed it was important to allow Biden to quickly assemble his economic team.

At her confirmation hearing before the committee on Tuesday, Yellen had argued that without prompt action the nation faced the threat of a “longer, more painful recession.” She urged quick action on the package that would provide an additional $1,400 in payments to individuals making below $75,000 annually as well as providing expanded unemployment benefits, further aid for small businesses, and support for cities and states to prevent layoffs.

The plan also provides more support for vaccine production and distribution.

During the hearing, Yellen faced substantial push back on the plan from Republicans on the committee who argued that the package was too large. They also objected to such measures as an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

As treasury secretary, Yellen, 74, would occupy a pivotal role in shaping and directing Biden’s economic policies. She would enter the Treasury job after many years serving in other top economic jobs including becoming the first woman to serve as chair of the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018.

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