Lloyd Austin controversy not fazing Hill Dems

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Top Hill Democrats want more information about the controversy swirling around Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization — and they don’t have it yet.

The party’s top member on the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith of Washington, said he’s already heard from the White House. Smith said in an interview that the Pentagon chief still needs to answer key questions about his decision to keep his illness and treatment secret from the White House and Congress for days before revealing his prostate cancer diagnosis.

But for all their confusion and angst, Democrats largely aren’t worried about political blowback from Austin’s undisclosed absence and his failure to inform the Biden administration about the complications from his cancer surgery. The revelation of Austin’s illness is prompting sympathy from Democrats who appear willing to wait — for now — before fretting about the broader consequences from the episode.

“He should recover and return. And then what we have to look at is the impact of what happened and, I think, make a determination: Was there any serious gaps in coverage?” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.), though he didn’t rule out hearings on the matter. The White House appears to be treating the firestorm similarly, with little evidence of much damage control on the Hill.

More than a half-dozen Democratic lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, told POLITICO in interviews Wednesday that they haven’t heard much of anything from the Biden administration so far. In addition to Smith, Reed said he’d spoken to Austin and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan about the situation but added that he’s not aware of the White House doing any widespread outreach.

Despite the brouhaha over Austin’s absence, Hill Democrats have largely eschewed calls for his resignation as they eye oversight efforts. Only one swing-seat first-term Democrat, Rep. Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania, broke from that pack on Wednesday to say Austin should step aside over his handling of his hospital stay.

The party’s relative silence suggests that Democrats may be placing a bet on the controversy over Austin’s absence: With Republicans already pursuing impeachments of Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, they’re less likely to try to turn the revelations about Austin’s treatment and complications into a political cudgel.

The gravity of Austin’s cancer diagnosis is also potentially cooling some congressional appetites to battle over the matter. Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, echoed others in the party by sharing concern for the defense chief’s situation.

“You don’t want to stigmatize it,” he said, noting the prominence of prostate cancer in the Black community. “But at the same time, you don’t want to downplay the significance of him not revealing that he was struggling with this to the president immediately.”

He chalked the secrecy up to Austin’s “introverted” nature: “He probably didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. But he is the Secretary of Defense.”

Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) echoed that sentiment, telling POLITICO that “a private man kept something private,” though Austin “should have disclosed” given his public-facing position.

“I don’t think there’s much more to the story than what should be the repercussions. That’s up to the president,” Welch said.

Though most Republicans aren’t willing to press for Austin’s ouster yet, GOP lawmakers still want answers and many are pushing for a public hearing to air out the details of how the incident transpired. And the GOP-led House Armed Services Committee has already launched a formal investigation into Austin’s hospitalization.

Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) isn’t committing to a hearing either, however, as his panel begins the probe. He said he aimed to keep the investigation bipartisan, adding that Smith is “as upset about this as I am.”

“The good news is, it’s very bipartisan,” Rogers said. “I’m not going to lead some kind of an effort [that] doesn’t have Adam involved.”

Smith isn’t the only committee Democrat who wants to see a bipartisan effort to get more answers from the Pentagon: “I certainly think it bears looking into,” seconded Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), a panel member.

Senate Armed Services Committee Republicans, led by ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), are also pushing for more information. All 12 Armed Services Republicans sent a letter to Austin with 17 questions on his hospitalization and transfer of responsibilities, arguing that the Pentagon violated federal laws governing vacancies.

“[T]he apparent failure to even notify your lawful successor in this case is a massive failure of judgment and negligence,” the Republicans wrote to Austin. “It is an intolerable breach of trust with the American people at a dangerous moment for U.S. national security.”

No matter how outraged Republicans may be about the handling of Austin’s secretive treatment, there are major barriers to action.

The congressional to-do list is already packed — including with impeachment inquiries into Biden and Mayorkas. House Republicans’ supremely thin majority and a gaping divide between the House and Senate GOP doesn’t help the case for impeaching Austin either.

Given Republicans’ shaky control over the House, any high-pressure vote like an impeachment will need Republicans to be in lockstep — which is a tall order for the deeply divided conference. As concerned as Democrats are about Austin’s conduct, it’s almost unthinkable that any would join a GOP push to punish him.

The most likely path for Congress, then, is a series of high-profile hearings in both chambers where lawmakers dig into the communication breakdown while Austin underwent a medical procedure and later returned to the hospital with complications. Lawmakers want to probe Austin and his staff and deputies about the decision not to inform the White House that the Cabinet secretary was ill and unable to perform his duties for a period.

While the Democratic-controlled Senate may well hold its own hearing, the chamber’s Republicans aren’t biting on bids to impeach Austin. Though some are calling on him to resign, many said this week that they’re skeptical of trying to out Austin before Congress has its chance to conduct oversight.

“With Austin, I think we need to hear the whole story,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who noted that it isn’t top of the agenda. “We have so many other things we need to spend time on,” she said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) called Austin’s handling of the situation “just a really sloppy failure” that may raise “some protocol issues” but warned that her House colleagues’ “instinctive reaction is knee jerk: let’s just impeach.”

Whether or not he agrees to testify at any hearings about his hospitalization, Austin is due to appear in Congress a handful of times each year. Those testimonies are a routine part of the appropriations process for funding government agencies and departments.

So no matter what Austin does, his illness is likely to haunt him in any future interactions with Congress.

“If I were the president, me and Secretary Austin, after he recovers from his surgery … he’s got some ‘splainin to do. If he’s working for me,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

Joe Gould contributed to this report.

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