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Senate Continues Hold on Army Secretary Nominee

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testifies before the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2016, as acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy looks on. (Stars and Stripes/Carlos Bongioanni)
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testifies before the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2016, as acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy looks on. (Stars and Stripes/Carlos Bongioanni)

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's release of the plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center means the Republican hold on the nominee to be the next Army secretary might not end anytime soon.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., confirmed Wednesday that he will continue his hold on the Eric Fanning nomination, which the White House sent to the Senate in September, as top Democrats criticized the move as a disservice to the country.

The Republican majority has backed Roberts, who wants assurances that detainees from Guantanamo will not be housed in Kansas and who harshly criticized the Obama administration's detention center closure plan released Tuesday. The Fanning nomination has remained frozen as the Army struggles with planning its future and budget, despite a recent nominee hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Holding people up for parochial matters is a disservice to the country, it is a disservice to the Senate," said Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, who is the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

The No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin, of Michigan, said he regrets the monthslong delay in considering Fanning, who served as the acting Army under secretary last year and previously led the Air Force temporarily. If confirmed, Fanning will be the first openly gay Army secretary.

"This is another critical nomination held up by the Republican majority and I don't understand why," Durbin said.

Roberts and numerous other Republican lawmakers criticized the administration's long-awaited plan for Guantanamo Bay as being critically short on details.

"Fortunately for us -- those who believe moving dangerous enemy combatants within our communities is a dangerous, irresponsible, and illogical idea -- the president's plan contains nothing substantive," Roberts said during a floor speech Tuesday.

If confirmed, Fanning would be coming in as secretary at the very end of Obama's second term and would likely face replacement under a Republican presidency.

But he could still exert influence on key issues as the Army faces increasing threats abroad and a stagnating budget, which has caused it to make tradeoffs between readiness, end strength and modernization.

As part of that, the Army announced plans last summer to reduce its active-duty strength from 490,000 to 450,000. That plan has now hit resistance in Congress, with lawmakers in the House and Senate saying the troops cuts should be halted. Fanning could be a key ally on the Army side.

"If confirmed, I would look for ways to reverse as many of the combat cuts that the Army made last year as possible," Fanning told the Senate Armed Services committee in January.

For now, Patrick Murphy is serving as acting Army secretary. The former paratrooper and former Democrat lawmaker, championed national security as well as gay and transgender rights during his time in the House from 2007-11.

Murphy is now leading Army efforts to cut programs and push its resources into getting forces ready to fight terrorism as well as large-scale conventional ground wars.

"I am going through the budget like a bulldog on a bone to find cost savings," Murphy told a Senate appropriations subcommittee Wednesday.

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