As obstacles remain for him to win confirmation as Army secretary, Eric Fanning stepped down this week in acting capacity from the job in an attempt to move his nomination forward in the U.S. Senate.
President Obama nominated Fanning for Army secretary in September, but his nomination remains pending before the U.S. Senate. If confirmed, Fanning would become the first openly gay person confirmed by the Senate as civilian head of any military service.
[UPDATE: The Senate Armed Services Committee scheduled Fanning’s confirmation hearing for Thursday, Jan. 21 at 9:30 am.]
Days after Fanning’s nomination in September, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) placed a hold on the nominee’s confirmation over objections to Obama’s remarks on his plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The hold remains in place today.
Following the departure of former Army Secretary John McHugh in November, Fanning had been serving as acting Army secretary as he awaited confirmation. On Monday, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook announced Fanning would step aside to address concerns about the arrangement.
“In conversations relating to Fanning’s confirmation, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed some concerns about his designation as Acting Army Secretary pursuant to the Vacancies Act,” Cook said. “While the administration believes the designation of Fanning as acting secretary of the Army is consistent with the Vacancies Act, as a show of comity to address these concerns, Fanning has agreed to step out of his acting role to focus on achieving confirmation in the near future.”
Now that Fanning has stepped aside, the acting civilian head of the Army will be Patrick Murphy, who was recently confirmed as under secretary of the Army and as a former member of Congress led the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“We expect this move to be of a short duration and for Fanning to achieve speedy confirmation,” Cook added. “He remains one of the most qualified nominees to be a service secretary, having served in many senior executive positions in each of the three military departments and as chief of staff of the department.”
The wait for Fanning’s confirmation hasn’t been especially lengthy in terms of presidential nominees, but already questions are being raised about whether the lack of confirmation after four months is related to sexual orientation.
Jimmy LaSalvia, author of “No Hope” who bolted the Republican Party, wrote in an op-ed for Slate on Wednesday that Roberts’ objection based on Guantanamo Bay is a red herring.
“Roberts is doing what the anti-gay crowd in the GOP does,” LaSalvia said. “Roberts isn’t going to allow a gay person to come up for a vote for such a big job, but it won’t be because he is gay. In this case they will point to Guantanamo Bay in their any-reason-except-that-they’re-gay takedown.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill haven’t publicly voiced objection to Fanning’s confirmation as Army secretary because of his sexual orientation, but that isn’t the case on the presidential campaign trail.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has said the nomination was an attempt to appease “America’s homosexuals.” Ted Cruz said he hopes Obama wasn’t “looking to make a political statement on issues of sexual orientation” with the nomination, but would wait until Fanning’s confirmation hearing to make an assessment.
Sources familiar with the confirmation process insist the objection from lawmakers isn’t Fanning’s sexual orientation but instead concerns Fanning’s appointment as Army secretary runs contrary to Vacancies Act. The U.S. Senate has confirmed Fanning to multiple civilian posts at the Pentagon without once raising an issue about him being gay.
Sarah Little, a Roberts spokesperson, said the lawmaker’s hold on Fanning “is not personal” and in fact related to Guantanamo Bay.
“The senator has asked the administration to provide a guarantee that GITMO detainees will not wind up in Kansas, as he was able to do when this issue first arose in 2009,” Little said. “This request has been articulated to John McHugh, before he left office as secretary of the Army, to those working closely on the ‘plan,’ and to Secretary Carter on several occasions. He remains committed to stopping the president from moving a single detainee to the U.S. and will continue to use all legislative tools at his disposal to do so.”
Matt Thorn, interim executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, blamed Roberts for the situation and urged the senator to lift his hold to allow the confirmation to proceed.
“Sen. Roberts’ blatant political hold leaves the Army without a service secretary during critical missions and engagements that the United States military currently has ongoing overseas,” Thorn said. “This decision does not just impact Mr. Fanning it impacts the entirety of the United States Army.”
Dustin Walker, a spokesperson Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said concerns over Fanning are “not at all” related to sexual orientation.
“Chairman McCain supported Mr. Fanning’s nomination to be Under Secretary of the Air Force in 2013,” Walker said. “In this case, there was an issue raised with Mr. Fanning’s nomination concerning the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. That issue has now been resolved, and the Senate Armed Services Committee will soon be announcing a date for Mr. Fanning’s nomination hearing. Chairman McCain looks forward to a substantive discussion on the challenges and opportunities confronting the United States Army.”