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First Openly Gay Army Secretary Nominee Stalled by Single Senator

A single senator is stalling the confirmation of an openly gay official nominated to be Army Secretary.
Acting Secretary of the Air Force, Eric Fanning
Acting Secretary of the Air Force, Eric FanningUSAF

It’s been eight months since President Barack Obama nominated Eric Fanning to become secretary of the Army — the first openly gay man to be recommended to that branch’s highest ranking civilian position.

Since then, he’s no closer than he was months ago to a confirmation. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, is holding up Fanning’s confirmation because the lawmaker wants Obama to promise not to move Guantanamo Bay detainees to the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas military installation.

Acting Secretary of the Air Force, Eric Fanning
Acting Secretary of the Air Force, Eric FanningUSAF

"Let me be very clear on this — as a veteran, a Marine — I support Mr. Eric Fanning for this post,” Roberts said on the Senate floor late last month. “If the White House calls and assures me that terrorists held at Guantanamo will not come to Ft. Leavenworth, I will release the hold – immediately.”

Related: Obama to Nominate Eric Fanning for Army, Would Be 1st Openly Gay Service Chief

White House officials suggested Roberts is grandstanding.

“It is hard to imagine that Senator Roberts takes this particularly seriously,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in a press briefing last month. “You may recall the last time that anybody has talked about Senator Roberts was when he filmed a video of himself crumbling up the president’s plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and throwing it in a wastebasket. So maybe he relishes the opportunity to be before the camera, but it's not apparent that he takes this critically important national security issue all that seriously.”

Watch: Sen. Pat Roberts Discuss Eric Fanning's Nomination

The standoff stems from the president’s announcement of a long-anticipated pitch to Congress in February to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Keeping the prison open, the president said, is "contrary to our values."

Image: Pat Roberts
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, left, answers a question during a debate with independent candidate Greg Orman listens during a debate at the Kansas State Fair Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, in Hutchinson, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)Charlie Riedel / AP

“It’s been clear that the detention center at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our national security,” Obama said from the Roosevelt Room at the White House earlier this year. “It undermines it."

The administration is weighing 13 locations across the country, including seven existing prison facilities in Colorado, South Carolina and Kansas and six additional sites on current military bases. Officials have said the plan doesn’t highlight a preferred site.

Related: Guantanamo Bay: Obama Announces Plan to Close Controversial Detention Facility

The response — especially from Republicans in Congress — was swift and critical.

Roberts who has represented Kansas for nearly two decades, and lawmakers from Colorado and South Carolina has been vocal in objecting to moving Guantanamo detainees to their states.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of House Armed Services Committee, sent the president a letter outlining the details he expected to see in any closure plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the chamber floor and said the president was fixed “on one matter by one campaign promise he made in 2008.”

However, Roberts took his opposition a step further.

“With this hold, I have used one of the tools afforded to me as a U.S. Senator, and I will continue to do everything in my power to fulfill my obligations to protect the national security of the United States. It is what Kansans expect and demand of me,” Roberts said on the Senate floor last month.

In March he introduced a Senate resolution rejecting any efforts to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay to American facilities.

The impasse remains despite the efforts of Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee — who calls Roberts a “good friend” — to move the process along,

Late last month an exasperated McCain took to the Senate floor and begged his colleague to lift his hold.

Image: U.S. Republican Senator McCain speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem
U.S. Republican Senator John McCain speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem January 3, 2014AMMAR AWAD / Reuters

“It is not fair to the men and the women of the United States Army to be without the leadership of a secretary of the Army,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “Mr. Fanning is eminently qualified to assume that role of Secretary of the Army. So I would urge my friend and colleague to allow me to… to not object to the unanimous consent that I am just proposing.”

Roberts remains unmoved. So does the White House.

“Mr. Fanning is somebody that has extensive experience at the Department of Defense,” Earnest told reporters during a briefing last week. “He’s served in a number of roles there. And he would bring that experience and that judgment to the secretary’s office. The president believes that he is exactly the right person for the job. And it’s unconscionable for Republicans to continue to block his nomination for no good reason.”