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Hold May Prevent Fanning From Ever Being Army Secretary

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The nomination of Eric Fanning to be the next secretary of the Army is on hold in the U.S. Senate over issues that have nothing to do with his qualifications. Whether he’ll ever be confirmed to fill the job vacated in November by John McHugh is unclear.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, using his senatorial privileges, vows to prevent a vote on Fanning as long as there is a threat that the Obama administration might close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Senate rules allow a permanent hold to be put on a nomination, as long as it is renewed every seven days.

While Fanning’s nomination is in limbo, Undersecretary of the Army Patrick Murphy, who was sworn in on Jan. 4, is the Army’s top civilian executive.

“The hold will stay until we can get past this year,” Roberts told the Topeka Capital-Journal, a threat that would prevent Fanning from being confirmed until President Barack Obama’s term ends. The hold is not a surprise. Roberts announced in November that he intended to block Fanning’s nomination over the prison issue, and he reminded everyone of his plans after Fanning appeared Jan. 21 before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a formal confirmation hearing.

Fanning was well received at the hearing, and appeared on the surface to face smooth sailing for approval of his nomination.

Roberts’ hold has drawn extra attention because Fanning would be the first openly gay person to be confirmed by Congress to a high-level Defense Department post. “I want to stress that it’s nothing personal,” Roberts told the newspaper. “It’s just the way it is.”

Roberts and other Republican members of the Kansas congressional delegation oppose closing the Cuba prison because of the possibility some detainees could be transferred to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. About 90 detainees remain from a population that was once 680 of what the Defense Department has described as enemy combatants.

The White House has been pushing to close the prison, located on a U.S. Navy base on Cuba, by transferring or releasing detainees. There have been discussions in the past about the possibility of sending some detainees to prisons in the U.S., but this has not happened because of push-back in Congress.

Fanning was not asked about the Guantanamo Bay prison during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, but he was asked about the Fort Leavenworth prison. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, asked why the 1,100 prisoners there were counted against Army personnel limits although they were clearly not deployable, an issue Fanning said was part of a larger Army problem.

Roberts placed a similar hold six years ago on John McHugh’s nomination to be Secretary of the Army, and lifted the hold only after receiving assurances that the White House had no immediate plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. The White House has given no indication it would back down again. Instead, White House officials have stressed that closing the prison before the end of his presidency remains a priority for Obama.