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Pressure mounting on Austin as GOP senators launch inquiry

Notification about Defense secretary’s surgery, hospitalization was delayed

Senate Republicans opened a new inquiry into delayed notification about Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III's cancer surgery and hospitalization.
Senate Republicans opened a new inquiry into delayed notification about Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III's cancer surgery and hospitalization. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As the ramifications of Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III’s failure to disclose his cancer surgery and subsequent hospitalization continued to reverberate through Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Senate Republicans opened a new inquiry into the matter, but lawmakers largely fell short of calling for his removal. 

Austin has been hospitalized since Jan. 1 due to complications from surgery to treat prostate cancer, his doctors disclosed Tuesday. But lawmakers were roiled by the revelation that the White House, Congress and many top military leaders weren’t informed of Austin’s initial Dec. 22 procedure, or of his subsequent hospitalization until days after his readmission to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

In the second such congressional inquiry in as many days, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., led all 11 GOP panel members in a letter to Austin, seeking a full accounting of Austin’s previous two weeks, and the role that Pentagon staff may have played in delaying the transfer of information.

The senators alleged that the department’s failure to inform Congress, the president and the comptroller general of Austin’s incapacitation contravened the requirements of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 — legislation that requires the temporary filling of some vacant executive branch positions. 

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

Wicker has called for a public hearing on Austin’s situation, but his Democrat counterpart, Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said he was trying first to establish what happened, and also waiting for Austin to be released from the hospital. 

But, he added, a hearing was still a possibility. 

Wicker’s letter follows a trio of similar letters sent by House Armed Services Chairman Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., to Austin, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and Austin’s Chief of Staff Kelly Magsamen questioning the trio’s whereabouts, communications with others and handling of the situation.

But the leaders of the congressional defense panels stopped short of calling for Austin’s resignation or removal. 

On Tuesday evening, Montana Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale introduced articles of impeachment against Austin in the House. It is unclear how much momentum, if any, such an effort might generate. 

“I want to get the answers first,” Rogers said in an interview, and said that he expects prompt replies from Pentagon officials to his letters. But he cautioned that should the Defense Department drag its feet on responding, he would call a public hearing on the matter. 

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, said in an interview that Austin should appear on Capitol Hill to discuss what transpired in person. 

“He clearly bungled the notification and admitted to it,” Courtney said, “But my colleagues who are calling for impeachment or resignation are way over the top.” 

Armed Services member Dale Strong, R-Ala., agreed that lawmakers should “hear the rest of the story” before making any moves toward an impeachment effort. 

“We need a little more information, but with national security and what we’re dealing with today, I’ll promise you that it shouldn’t have been swept under the rug,” Strong said. 

Some lawmakers, however, including House Armed Services Committee members Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., and Chris Deluzio, D-Pa., called on Austin to resign.

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