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Politics
Democrat Joe Biden was sworn in as the United States of America's 46th president on Jan. 20, 2021. This series, started before his inauguration, covers the efforts of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to build their administration.

Biden Poised To Enter Presidency With Fewest Cabinet Confirmations In Decades

Retired U.S. Army General Lloyd Austin is seen speaking on December 9 after being nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Defense by President-elect Joe Biden.
Retired U.S. Army General Lloyd Austin is seen speaking on December 9 after being nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Defense by President-elect Joe Biden.

With less than two weeks before he assumes office, President-elect Joe Biden is on track to have very few, if any, Cabinet members confirmed on Inauguration Day, the first president to face such a personnel issue in recent history.

While it's typical for incoming presidents to have their national security team in place by Jan. 20, the Senate has only scheduled a confirmation hearing for one of Biden's nominees, Lloyd Austin for secretary of Defense.

In fact, the only two Cabinet positions confirmed by President Trump's inauguration day in 2017 were his nominees for secretary of Defense and secretary of Homeland Security. His secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was confirmed Feb. 1.

Former President Obama had six Cabinet nominees confirmed Jan. 20, including his pick to head Homeland Security. His secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, had remained in place from the previous administration. His secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, wasn't confirmed until the day after his inauguration.

Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had seven and three Cabinet positions confirmed by Jan. 20, respectively; both included the top positions of Defense and State. For Clinton, 10 more of his Cabinet nominees were confirmed the day after his inauguration.

Should none of Biden's Cabinet picks be confirmed by Jan. 20, every Cabinet position would require an acting secretary to execute the role.

It's possible that Austin's confirmation process, which begins with a hearing the day before Biden is sworn in as the 46th president, will end just in time for a confirmation on Jan. 20.

But Austin's confirmation process is complicated by the fact that he'll need a congressional waiver in order to head the Defense Department because the former head of U.S. Central Command has only been retired from active duty for four years. Defense secretaries are legally required to have been retired from active duty for at least seven years.

Biden acknowledged the legal requirements for the post when he announced Austin's nomination in December.

"There's a good reason for this law that I fully understand and respect. I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn't call for it," he said.

Should Austin receive the waiver, he'd be following in the footsteps of President Trump's first defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, who had also been out of active service for less than seven years.

Although Congress passed the waiver for him, various lawmakers voiced opposition to the waiver process becoming a pattern.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who is poised to chair the Armed Services Committee, warily voted to give Mattis the waiver four years ago and made his reluctance of issuing such a waiver again clear.

"Waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation," he said in 2017. "I will not support a waiver for future nominees."

If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be the first African American to lead the Defense Department.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.