UPDATE 3-U.S. Congress moves toward approving Biden's defense secretary pick

(Updates with final vote, Senate waiver vote planned)

WASHINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives approved a waiver on Thursday that helps clear the way for President Joe Biden's nominee, Lloyd Austin, to serve as defense secretary despite having retired as an army general in 2016.

The House approved the waiver by 326 to 78, far more than the majority necessary to waive a provision of a law on civilian control of the U.S. military that requires a seven-year wait after retirement before active-duty military can lead the Department of Defense.

The Senate began voting on Austin shortly afterward. Approval, which is expected, would mean Austin could be confirmed and sworn in on Thursday.

He would be the first Black U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the waiver and Austin's nomination earlier on Thursday by unanimous voice vote.

Ahead of the vote set for Thursday afternoon, Austin held a briefing with Democratic and Republican House members to discuss the importance of civilian control of the military.

The House Armed Services Committee had planned a hearing on the waiver issue, but could not do so quickly enough because the panel's membership in the newly elected Congress has not been made final.

Democrats - who now control both the House and Senate - have said they want to do everything possible to get Biden's key security aides into place as quickly as possible, overcoming concerns about civilian control of the military.

Biden took office on Wednesday.

Congress has only approved waivers for recently retired nominees twice before, but the last time was only four years ago, when former President Donald Trump's first defense secretary, retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, also needed - and received - a waiver.

Austin had a smooth confirmation hearing in the Senate on Tuesday. Austin said he would work to get rid of "racists and extremists" from the ranks of the U.S. military.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali and Makini Brice; Editing by Will Dunham and Daniel Wallis)

01/21/2021 21:29

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