After a long delay of nearly eight months, the U.S. Senate confirmed on Tuesday Eric Fanning as the first-ever openly gay Army secretary.
The chamber approved the nomination, announced by President Obama in September, by voice vote with little fanfare on the Senate floor.
“I’m honored by today’s Senate confirmation and thrilled to return to lead the total Army team,” Fanning said in a statement. “I am looking forward to getting back to work with [Army Chief of Staff] Gen. [Mark] Milley, and sincerely appreciative of Patrick Murphy’s work as acting Secretary over the past several months.”
Never before has the U.S. Senate confirmed an openly gay person as the civilian head of one of the military services. Fanning has under the Obama administration served on the civilian side of each of the military services at the Pentagon and was chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
LGBT advocates have said the confirmation makes Fanning the highest-ranking openly gay person in the U.S. government. Other appointees who may hold claim to that distinction are Fred Hochberg, chair of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, or U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith.
Prior to the vote, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) had held up the confirmation by placing a hold on the nominee. The lawmaker, who has a long anti-LGBT voting record in the Senate, said he based his hold on Obama’s plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, citing concern detainees would be relocated to Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas.
In a statement on his website, Roberts said he lifted his hold on the nomination based on assurances he received from the Obama administration and Congress, and insisted his action wasn’t based on Fanning’s character.
“I look forward to voting for Mr. Fanning who has always had my support for this position,” Roberts said. “My hold was never about his courage, character or capability, but rather about our nation’s security if the detainees were moved to Ft. Leavenworth. I believe Eric Fanning will be a tremendous leader for the Army, including those who serve at Ft. Leavenworth and Ft. Riley in my state.”
Roberts said he received assurances from Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work on May 10 Obama won’t send detainees to Ft. Leavenworth, although the plan to close the detention facility remains in place.
“I take Deputy Secretary Work at his word,” Roberts said. “He understands the significant and costly changes that would need to be made at Ft. Leavenworth to change the post’s mission. He understands the myriad of challenges that Ft. Leavenworth poses after reviewing earlier analyses. Most importantly, he understands the legal restrictions on funding to move the detainees to Ft. Leavenworth by January 20, 2017.”
Roberts also cited in pending major defense spending legislation language prohibiting the closure of Guantanamo Bay without a plan approved by Congress.
“Looking at the task before the administration, it is increasingly improbable that they can jeopardize our national security by bringing high-value terrorists and their associated risks to an American community like Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas,” Roberts said.
A similar situation regarding Obama’s choice of Army secretary has occurred before. In 2009, Roberts and then-U.S. Sam Brownback placed a hold on the nomination of John McHugh for Army secretary over concerns about closing Guantanamo Bay. The White House gave assurances it wouldn’t relocate terrorist detainees to Ft. Leavenworth and the senators lifted their hold, allowing the Senate to confirm McHugh.
Among those pushing for Senate confirmation of Fanning was Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-Ariz.), who sought to initiate a vote on the nomination last month, but was blocked by Roberts. On the Senate floor, Roberts indicated the 2009 assurances are no longer satisfactory, citing concerns about having “no statute of limitations.”
A source familiar with the Fanning nomination said McCain sought to compel Roberts to lift his hold on the Fanning nomination during a recent Senate recess, which led to his vote for confirmation.
McCain also initially objected to moving forward with the Fanning nomination, citing concerns the nominee’s role as acting Army secretary contravened the Vacancies Act. After Fanning stepped aside from the position, McCain allowed a committee hearing and vote on the nomination to take place.
Matthew Thorn, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, said the Senate confirmation of Fanning was “long overdue” because the nominee was more than qualified to become Army secretary.
“Eric’s sexual orientation has absolutely no bearing on his ability to do this job; nor was it the reason for his nomination,” Thorn said. “But this milestone of having an openly gay individual in this high-level position within the Department of Defense will help to continue to set a tone of understanding and respect for the LGBT community throughout the armed services.”
Thorn said the Fanning confirmation is “not the last stand for the LGBT military community,” but a significant milestone because it represents progress for LGBT people.
“As we approach the fifth anniversary of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ Secretary Fanning now becomes the highest-ranking LGBT official in the administration,” Thorn said. “That is a testament to President Obama and this administration’s priorities and vision.”