Mike Lee is 1 of 2 senators voting against Biden’s secretary of defense pick

Utah senator says he doesn’t want to bend rule requiring civilian leadership of military, but he did during the Trump administration.

(Jim Lo Scalzo | File pool photo via AP) New Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin as he spoke during his confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington.

While the Senate overwhelmingly voted 93-2 on Friday to confirm Lloyd Austin — a retired four-star Army general — to become the first-ever Black secretary of defense, Utah Sen. Mike Lee was one of the two who opposed it. And he offered a seemingly contradictory explanation about why.

Lee also was among senators on the losing side of a 69-27 vote on Thursday to give a special waiver to Austin to allow him to serve as secretary of defense without first waiting through a normally required 7-year period after active military service.

Conn Carroll, spokesperson for Lee, said the senator “believes civilian control of the military is best served by the existing rule requiring a seven-year gap between active duty and the position of secretary of defense.”

He added, “Other senators may have voted to waive that rule for Gen. Austin, but Sen. Lee believes it should be uniformly applied.”

However four years ago, Lee voted for a needed waiver — and later to confirm — President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense, former Marine four-star General James Mattis. In 2017, Mattis was confirmed on a 98-1 vote, after winning the needed waiver on an 81-17 Senate vote.

The other senator who voted against Austin’s confirmation on Friday was Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. — who landed in headlines when he continued to push a challenge to electoral votes just hours after the U.S. Capitol was stormed by rioters on Jan. 6.

While the House does not vote on Cabinet nominations by a president, it did vote on the waiver for Austin on Thursday — and passed it 326-78.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a former Air Force pilot, was among the minority who voted against the waiver. Reps. John Curtis, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore, all R-Utah, voted for it. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also voted for the waiver and confirmation of Austin.