Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Senator Bennet’s and Brendan Owens’ names in certain instances.
WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers spent the last year stalling President Joe Biden’s defense nominees, but the latest threat to filling the Pentagon’s top jobs is coming from the president’s own party.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said he’s threatening to delay the six remaining Pentagon nominees because Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin refuses to meet with him over the Trump administration’s decision to move U.S. Space Command from its current location in Colorado Springs to Huntsville, Alabama.
The potential roadblock comes after the Senate made significant progress on its Pentagon confirmation backlog, confirming at least four long-stalled Defense Department nominees in December. Then on Monday, the Senate voted 60-35 to confirm Brendan Owens as assistant secretary of defense for energy and installations in its first floor vote of the year.
Bennet and fellow Colorado Democrat Sen. John Hickenlooper joined Republicans in voting “no” on Owens because their letters to Austin have gone unanswered.
“We simply have received no response,” Bennet told Defense News Tuesday. “When the stakes are as high as they are, when our national security is at risk, when [former President] Donald Trump made a political decision that overruled the best advice of the Air Force’s generals who examined the question of where Space Command should be, I think we should hear from the secretary of defense.”
Two years ago, during the final days of the Trump administration, the Air Force announced Huntsville, Alabama — the site of the Army’s Redstone Arsenal and home to the Missile Defense Agency — would serve as the new location for Space Command headquarters, moving it from Colorado Springs.
The decision infuriated Colorado’s congressional delegation, who asked the Air Force to review the decision. Several Colorado Democrats argued it was an act of political retaliation because Biden won the swing state in the 2020 election.
A Defense Department Inspector General report in May found the Air Force followed all relevant laws and policies when selecting Huntsville. But the report also found the rules themselves may have been flawed, resulting in a less than optimal decision.
A separate June report from the Government Accountability Office found the Air Force did not follow best practices when making the basing decision.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall is reviewing both reports’ findings and will make a determination about whether to revisit the basing process. SPACECOM Commander Gen. James Dickinson said in early December he expects that decision “shortly,” but the service declined to provide a more specific timeline to Defense News.
“We are engaging the senator on this,” a senior defense official told Defense News, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss Bennet’s threat on Pentagon nominations. “More broadly, we continue to have conversations with senators from both parties as we work to confirm our nominees.”
‘Prerogative of senators’
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., told Defense News “we can and we should rapidly resolve [Bennet’s and Hickenlooper’s] desire for a meeting” with Austin.
“And then I think they’ll withdraw the holds,” he added.
Any senator can block the expedited procedures generally used to confirm Pentagon nominees with broad bipartisan support. This forces Senate leaders to devote scarce hours of floor time on the numerous procedural votes needed to confirm these nominees.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., placed a blanket hold on all Pentagon nominees in 2021 over Biden’s hasty Afghanistan withdrawal. Hawley had initially demanded Austin and other top Biden administration officials resign, but ultimately agreed to allow up-or-down votes on nominees such as Owens after Congress passed Hawley’s legislation banning TikTok on federal devices.
Reed repeatedly denounced Hawley’s blanket hold on the chamber’s floor last year, but drew a distinction between Bennet’s tactic and that of the Missouri Republican.
“That’s a prerogative of senators,” he said. “Continuous holds, I think, are just self-destructive because they take away the talent the Department of Defense needs.”
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, also defended the increasing instances of individual senators holding up nominees as leverage over the executive branch.
“It’s a tool we have at our disposal,” Wicker told Defense News. “It’s part of our oversight abilities, and sometimes it’s important to get the attention of unelected officials.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also has holds on two Pentagon nominees over a separate dispute with the Interior Department regarding a mine project in his state. Those nominees are Laura Taylor-Kale, tapped to serve as assistant secretary of defense for industrial-base policy, and Radha Plumb, nominated to be deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.
Ravi Chaudhary and Lester Martinez-Lopez are also awaiting floor votes to respectively serve as assistant Air Force secretary for energy, installations and the environment and assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
The Senate Armed Services Committee must also hold nomination hearings for Nickolas Guertin to be assistant Navy secretary for research, development and acquisition as well as for Ronald Keohane to be assistant defense secretary for manpower and reserve affairs before voting to advance them to the floor.
Joe Gould and Courtney Albon contributed to this report
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.