April 28, 2016 at 6:26 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Fanning confirmation vote initiated, halted on Senate floor

Eric Fanning, gay news, Washington Blade

Eric Fanning (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A conservative U.S. senator thwarted an attempt Thursday to confirm on the Senate floor an openly gay official as Army secretary over objections to President Obama’s plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

In an unusual public dispute between a Republican and a Republican, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-Ariz.) sought to bring to a vote the nomination of Eric Fanning as Army secretary, but Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) blocked the confirmation.

On the Senate floor, McCain praised Fanning as “eminently qualified,” pointing to his service on the civilian side of each branch of the U.S. military and as an assistant to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. The nominee has waited for a confirmation vote for nearly six months since Obama nominated him in November.

“When a president is selected by the American people, then that president should be given the benefit of a doubt as to the person or persons that the president wants on his or her team,” McCain said. “And then it’s our job to make the decision, I believe, whether to confirm or deny confirmation based on our view of the qualifications, but with the presumption that we would confirm someone rather than the presumption that we wouldn’t.”

Roberts has placed a hold on Fanning’s nomination out of concern if Obama closes the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, he’ll move terrorists detainees to Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas. Although observers say that facility for various reasons is unsuitable for housing terrorist detainees, Roberts has said he wants the administration to assure him he won’t place them in his home state.

On the Senate floor, McCain gave assurances the Senate version of the defense authorization bill would contain language, as it has in years past, prohibiting the administration from moving terrorist detainees into the United States without a prior plan approved by Congress. McCain added Fanning in any event “has no role to play” in the decision on moving terrorist detainees from Guantanamo Bay into the United States.

But Roberts objected to moving toward a vote on the nomination, saying he’ll continue to block it unless he receives satisfactory assurances from the White House.

“I have been clear, honest and flexible with the White House,” Roberts said. “I am simply asking they communicate to me what all those who have reviewed Ft. Leavenworth already know: That Ft. Leavenworth is not a suitable placement for the detention facilities at Guatanamo Bay. The White House has not reciprocated.”

As the exchange continued on the Senate floor, McCain accused Roberts of establishing bad precedent and requiring the White House to make assurances to the 99 other senators terrorist detainees won’t be moved to their states.

“Whether Eric Fanning is confirmed or not, it does not change the situation one iota, not one iota,” McCain said.

But Roberts wouldn’t relent, citing a phone call he received the White House that day on the issue and denying the Fanning nomination is unrelated to Guantanamo Bay.

“If there is nothing to bear here, this doesn’t have any relationship to the issue at hand, why did the White House call and say, ‘Oh, we’ll make a decision down the road, but we won’t surprise you’?” 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.

On the Senate floor, Roberts indicated the 2009 assurances are no longer satisfactory, citing concerns about having “no statute of limitations.”

If confirmed, Fanning would become the first openly gay person to serve as Army secretary. Fanning has previously served as acting Army secretary, but had to step down over concerns his occupation of that role while his nomination was pending violated the Vacancies Act.

Roberts on the Senate floor insisted the hold up on Fanning’s nomination “is not in relation to his capabilities, his expertise or his character,” but the senator has anti-gay record that includes votes against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as well as support for a U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage nationwide.

Matthew Thorn, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, said he’s “disappointed” Roberts halted a vote on Fanning’s nomination.

“Though we often don’t agree with Sen. McCain, this is one instance where we do,” Thorn added. “Eric’s resume is full of superlatives. He knows every military service, the bureaucracy of the Pentagon. He will be one of the most effective service secretaries. Eric should be afforded a vote. Sen. Roberts hold about Guantanamo Bay should have no bearing on Eric’s confirmation vote as Senator McCain said. They are two separate items.”

Thorn also reiterated his call for the White House to amp up efforts to ensure Fanning’s confirmation before the end of the Obama administration.

“We would like to see the White House take a more active role in Eric’s confirmation than just a simple phone call to Sen. Roberts as he mentioned in his floor speech the day of a potential vote,” Thorn said. “It is uniquely the White House’s responsibility to clarify its Guantanamo plans to Roberts, work to mollify his concerns, and work with him to get him to lift his hold. Two hundred thirteen-plus days is long enough for the Army to be without a formally confirmed secretary. It’s time to get this done.”

The White House didn’t immediately respond to the Blade’s request to comment Thursday on the Senate floor exchange between McCain and Roberts.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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