WASHINGTON - U.S. President Joe Biden got a needed boost early Friday, with lawmakers giving final approval to his secretary of defense, who becomes only the second Cabinet member to be confirmed the administration seeks to push back against key adversaries, including Russia.
The Senate voted 93-2 to confirm retired General Lloyd Austin, making him the first African American to lead the Department of Defense.
"It's an honor and a privilege to serve as our country's 28th Secretary of Defense, and I'm especially proud to be the first African American to hold the position. Let's get to work," tweeted Austin Friday.
The vote came less than 24 hours after both the Senate and the House approved a legally required waiver that would allow Austin, the former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia to take the civilian post, less than seven years after retiring from the military.
During his confirmation hearing this past Tuesday, Austin said his first priority would be to boost the country's battle against the coronavirus pandemic, and U.S. defense officials said Friday he was set to get an update on those efforts following his swearing in.
"The greatest challenge to our country right now ... is the pandemic," he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"It's killed over 400,000 of our American citizens. That's just an incredible, incredible loss of life," Austin said. "We have to do everything we can to break the cycle of transmission and begin to turn this thing around."
But Austin will also have to grapple quickly with military policy to counter U.S. adversaries, including Russia.
The Biden administration announced Thursday it is seeking a five-year extension of New START, one of the last remaining arms control treaties with Russia.
The treaty, which limits the United States and Russia to deploy no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and puts limits on the missile delivery systems, is set to expire in February.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also confirmed Thursday that Biden is asking the intelligence community for assessments on suspect Russian actions, including the SolarWinds cyberhack, interference in November's presidential election, the use of chemical weapons against opposition leader Alexei Navalny and alleged bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
The newly confirmed Austin will likely have to confront other pressing concerns, including Chinese and Iranian aggression, as well as what direction to take in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, where former president Donald Trump oversaw recently concluded troop drawdowns.
With Friday's vote in the Senate, Austin becomes just the second member of the new U.S. security team to be confirmed.
Lawmakers confirmed Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines late Wednesday.
Haines, the first woman to lead the U.S. intelligence committee was sworn in early Thursday and proceeded to take part in the president's daily intelligence briefing.
In a statement Thursday, she said the work of the country's intelligence agencies "has never been more vital to our nation's security or prosperity."
Despite the confirmation of Haines and Austin, additional critical positions - at the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and at the Central Intelligence Agency, remain unfilled.
The Senate is also expected to move on other key nominees, such as former Ambassador William Burns, tapped to run the Central Intelligence Agency.
"Even as power changes hands from one administration to the other, the work of keeping our nation safe must not be paused or be disrupted," new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told fellow lawmakers late Thursday, urging them to move with haste.
"Foreign adversaries will seek to exploit this period of transition, and we cannot allow America's military, intelligence and national security policy to be disrupted by staffing delays," he said.