Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks with sailors aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford on Dec. 20, 2023.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks with sailors aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford on Dec. 20, 2023. (Nolan Pennington/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — Top Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday pressed for a congressional hearing on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s undisclosed hospitalization and praised the launch of a Pentagon inspector general investigation into the incident.

The lawmakers — Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the committee’s highest-ranking Republican, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Rick Scott of Florida — stopped short of calling for Austin’s resignation but said their stance could change as more information comes to light about the days that Austin spent in the hospital last week without the White House, Congress or the public knowing about it.

Austin remains at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., as he recovers from complications from prostate cancer surgery.

“The secretary is not going to resign,” Wicker said. “I think when we have a hearing, we may find out different facts that lead to a different conclusion but, at this point, I have not made that call.”

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the chairman of the committee, has not announced a hearing on the matter, though he said there needs to be transparency and accountability from the Defense Department and another lack of disclosure “must never happen again.”

The list of lawmakers calling for Austin’s resignation was limited to about a dozen Republicans until Rep. Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania on Wednesday became the first Democrat to announce he has lost trust in Austin.

“I have a solemn duty in Congress to conduct oversight of the Defense Department through my service on the House Armed Services Committee,” Deluzio, a former Navy officer, said in a statement. “That duty today requires me to call on Secretary Austin to resign.”

Republicans and Democrats in both chambers are demanding answers from the Pentagon about the breakdown in communication that kept Austin’s medical condition hidden from top officials and the public.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, initiated an official inquiry Tuesday while Republican members of the Senate’s Armed Services panel on Wednesday sent off a lengthy list of questions to Austin.

Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer last month and had surgery in late December. He was rushed to Walter Reed in an ambulance Jan. 1 after experiencing complications from the procedure, and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks assumed part of his duties the next day.

Hicks and the White House learned of Austin’s hospitalization Jan. 4, and Congress and the public were notified in what Wicker described as a “Friday night information dump” Jan. 5. The White House was not aware Austin had cancer until Tuesday, when the Pentagon also disclosed his condition publicly.

Wicker said the period of silence coincided with “kinetic action” in the Middle East, where commercial ships have been under attack for weeks by Iran-backed Houthi militia amid Israel’s war against Hamas. Fischer stressed Austin’s crucial role in nuclear military decisions.

“If any security crisis had occurred last week, no one would have known where to find Austin,” she said.

Lawmakers commended the announcement Thursday that the Defense Department’s inspector general would investigate the mishandling of Austin’s hospitalization, calling it “encouraging.” Republicans had strongly criticized a planned 30-day review directed by Austin’s office because it involved the same people now under scrutiny.

Wicker credited pressure from lawmakers for pushing the inspector general into action. Scott said the investigation, while welcome, should not take the place of a congressional hearing.

“The Pentagon ought to come here right now and tell us exactly what happened,” he said. “Whoever did something wrong, they’ve got to be held accountable.”

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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