Senate Panel Advances Trump's Air Force Secretary Pick

FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2012 file photo, Heather Wilson is seen in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2012 file photo, Heather Wilson is seen in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf, File)

The Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday advanced President Donald Trump's pick to be the next secretary of the Air Force.

The panel, headed by Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, voted 22-5 to confirm Heather Wilson, a former congresswoman and Air Force Academy graduate, to the position. Her nomination next heads to the full Senate for a vote.

If confirmed by the upper chamber, Wilson will be the first service secretary to serve in the Trump administration. Both Army secretary nominee Vincent Viola and Navy secretary nominee Philip Bilden in February withdrew from their prospective posts, citing business and financial concerns.

Wilson served as a Republican from New Mexico in the House of Representatives from 1998 to 2009. She graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982, part of the third class to include women. She's currently the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, a public institution of higher learning in Rapid City.

Last week during her confirmation hearing before senators, Wilson said America may take for granted what the Air Force has done during its history of air dominance, but "intrepid airmen" will continue to prepare for whatever challenges the future holds, from boosting readiness and modernization to helping address a chronic pilot shortage.

Members said they were encouraged by her persistence to help represent issues currently plaguing the service, such as the pilot shortage and falling readiness levels.

But Democratic Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut made a point to register their disapproval of Wilson's work for Sandia Corp., a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. that runs Sandia National Laboratories, for a period after she served in Congress.

Between 2009 and 2013, Wilson made almost half a million dollars working for Sandia. The senators suggested she received a payout to lobby for the subsidiary. It's illegal for members to work in a lobbying capacity for one year after serving in Congress.

Wilson claimed she did substantial, evidence-based work.

The Justice and Energy Departments concluded in separate audits on Sandia and its contractual partnerships that the company "had improperly billed the federal government for its lobbying effort."

Lockheed in 2015 paid $4.7 million to the government to settle the issue.

During the confirmation hearing, McCain asked if dealing with Lockheed would pose a conflict of interest for Wilson. She replied it would not.

Meanwhile, the White House is expected to announce new Army and Navy secretary nominees soon, perhaps as early as next week, The Hill reported.

The Trump administration is considering former Army flight surgeon and Tennessee state Sen. Mark Green for Army secretary, Military Times reported. Richard V. Spencer, a former Marine aviator and investment banker, is likely to be named the Navy's top civilian nominee, Bloomberg first reported last month.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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