WASHINGTON — Under pressure from Congress, Acting Army Secretary Eric Fanning will step down from his position while he waits for his confirmation hearing to begin for the secretary’s chair, the Pentagon announced Monday.
Fanning was nominated to replace Secretary John McHugh in September, but has yet to begin the confirmation process in the Senate. Once McHugh stepped down in November, Fanning was named acting secretary of the service.
However, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed “some concerns” about Fanning being slotted into the acting position, according to a statement from Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook. The committee holds a confirmation hearing before the nomination may advance to the Senate for a vote.
“While the Administration believes the designation of Fanning as Acting Secretary of the Army is consistent with the Vacancies Act, as a show of comity to address these concerns, Fanning has agreed to step out of his acting role to focus on achieving confirmation in the near future,” Cook wrote in his statement.
“We expect this move to be of a short duration and for Fanning to achieve speedy confirmation,” Cook continued. “He remains one of the most qualified nominees to be a Service Secretary, having served in many senior executive positions in each of the three military departments and as Chief of Staff of the Department.”
Army Undersecretary Patrick Murphy will serve as acting secretary in the interim period.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., placed a hold on Fanning's nomination in early November to protest President Barack Obama's ongoing campaign to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility and transfer detainees to the United States, Roberts' office confirmed. The move was part of an effort to prevent the White House from taking executive action to close the facility.
Fanning became Air Force undersecretary in April 2013. He served several months as acting secretary while the confirmation of now-Secretary Deborah Lee James was stuck in Congress. Before that, he was deputy undersecretary of the Navy and its deputy chief management officer from 2009-2013.
When Defense Secretary Ash Carter entered office in early 2015, one of his first moves was tapping Fanning as his chief of staff. In that role, he helped organize his boss' transition to the Pentagon's top spot and assisted in day-to-day operations.
In addition to his long resume, Fanning would also mark a milestone as the first openly gay secretary of a military branch.
The Senate has yet to set a date for Fanning’s hearing.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., "is looking to hold a hearing to consider Mr. Fanning's nomination as soon as possible," a McCain spokesman said.
For months McCain had delayed confirmations for some key civilian Defense Department nominees to protest Democratic rule changes in the confirmation process and Obama's threat to veto the 2016 defense policy bill. Congressional leaders have since reached a budget deal, and Obama signed the disputed defense policy bill into law.
The freeze had not applied universally, as lawmakers approved the appointments of top-level personnel: a new Army chief of staff, chief of naval operations, Marine Corps commandant, as well as the defense secretary Ash Carter, chairman and vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and a deputy chief management officer.
The logjam cleared after lawmakers and the president reached a deal on the federal budget deal, but also after Carter, during a SASC hearing, admonished its members over delays in approving defense-related nominees, "especially in a time of conflict."