Army Secretary Nomination Is Blocked by a G.O.P. Senator


WASHINGTON — Down the hallway from the secretary of the Army’s offices on the third floor of the Pentagon, Eric Fanning spends his days sitting in a nondescript room with several empty desks. Unlike the secretary’s offices, which have floor to ceiling windows and views of the monuments on the National Mall, Mr. Fanning’s office looks out on limestone walls that form one of the inner rings of the Pentagon.

Mr. Fanning is stuck in that office and has little to do all day because his nomination to be the secretary of the Army — the highest-ranking civilian position in the largest branch of the military — is stalled in Congress. Senate Republicans have successfully blocked many of President Obama’s appointees since they took over control from the Democrats in 2015. Mr. Fanning has stood out because there are few questions about his qualifications, but he is being held up by just one senator. If confirmed, Mr. Fanning will be the highest-ranking openly gay Pentagon official.

Standing in the way of that happening is Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, who has placed a hold on his nomination, insisting that the Obama administration tell him that it will not move any detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Although few administration officials believe the base is a viable option, the Obama administration, which is determined to close the facility by the time the president leaves office in January, has balked at giving Mr. Roberts any assurances.

Nevertheless, some Senate Republicans have said Mr. Roberts is being unreasonable and should allow Mr. Fanning’s nomination to move forward. In an unusual alliance, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a longtime Republican adversary of Mr. Obama, has fought to get Mr. Fanning, 47, confirmed. After he tried for weeks to persuade Mr. Roberts in private to allow Mr. Fanning’s nomination to move forward, the tension between Mr. McCain and Mr. Roberts — whom Mr. McCain calls “a very good friend” — spilled out on the Senate floor at the end of last month.

Mr. McCain said it was unfair to hold up Mr. Fanning’s nomination, because he would have no role in what happened to the detainees, but Mr. Roberts refused to back down.

Mr. Fanning’s nomination is being closely watched by many in the gay community. Under Mr. Obama, the military ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred openly gay men, lesbians and bisexuals from military service. And, senior Pentagon officials are studying how to incorporate transgender people into the services.

Many in the gay community believe Mr. Fanning’s confirmation will be another step forward for gays in the military, but they are concerned about why the process has taken so long.

“What’s baffling about this is that Eric has bipartisan support from all corners and nobody disputes his qualifications, record of service or leadership, which is rare in such a high-profile job,” said Chad Griffin, the chairman of Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group.

Although he never served in the military, Mr. Fanning has served in high-level jobs in all three services.

He started out of college as a low-level staff member on the House Armed Services Committee. When the committee’s chairman, Representative Les Aspin, was appointed defense secretary by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Mr. Fanning went with him.

But after Mr. Aspin later resigned, Mr. Fanning has said, he did not think there was a future for him in national security in Washington, and he left government and moved to New York.

Over the next decade, Mr. Fanning worked at CBS as a foreign news editor, for a private strategic communications firm and as an executive at a national security think tank. In 2008, he took a job as the deputy director of a commission studying the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Since then, he has served in a series of senior Pentagon positions — deputy under secretary of the Navy, acting secretary of the Air Force, under secretary of the Air Force and then the first chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter.

After Mr. Obama nominated him to be the secretary of the Army, he served as acting secretary until stepping aside in January in the face of complaints from Mr. McCain that serving on an acting basis was a way around the nomination process.

Later that month, Mr. McCain invited Mr. Fanning to testify before the Armed Services Committee, which approved his nomination and sent it to the Senate floor in March. At that point, Pentagon officials believed Mr. Fanning would receive a vote within days. But Mr. Roberts then reaffirmed a commitment to place a hold on his nomination until he received an assurance from the administration about the detainees.

“He has completed all the requirements and come through the committee,” Mr. McCain said in an interview, “and he would have no authority whatsoever over the issue of where to relocate the prisoners who are being held at Guantánamo.”

In response to questions about Mr. Fanning’s nomination, a spokeswoman for Mr. Roberts referred a reporter to statements he had made on the floor. Mr. Roberts said in the statements that he had no issue with Mr. Fanning, but was concerned about the security of the men and women working at Fort Leavenworth and living in the region if the detainees were moved there.

“This happens quite often where you have a hold, but it usually resolves itself when the senator has made their point,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said Mr. Fanning was probably the most qualified nominee the Obama administration had put forward for a Pentagon position in recent years.

“The point has been made, and we’re now getting pretty late in the administration,” Mr. Harrison said. “If he’s not confirmed soon, it won’t make much sense for him or the Army to go forward.”

Mr. Fanning declined to comment on Tuesday about his confirmation prospects. “The White House and Senator McCain are working on this very hard, and they prefer that nominees stay in a radio silent mode,” he said.