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Senate confirms Eric Fanning as the first openly gay Army secretary

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning speaks to 300 members of the 106th Rescue Wing, New York Air National Guard, during a visit to Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., on July 25, 2013. The Senate confirmed Fanning as the next secretary of the Army on Tuesday. (Chris Muncy/U.S. Air National Guard via Reuters)

The Senate confirmed Eric Fanning as Army secretary Tuesday evening, making him the first openly gay person to lead a military service.

President Obama nominated Fanning to the post last September, but his candidacy was delayed in recent months by a hold from Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), objecting not to Fanning himself, but to the administration’s Guantanamo policy.

Obama to nominate first openly gay service secretary to lead the Army

Roberts held up Fanning’s nomination to protest Obama’s plans to transfer detainees at the prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States, concerned that such a move could mean that prisoners would be housed at the military base in Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. Roberts was unconvinced that legal prohibitions against using federal funds to relocate detainees to the United States would prevent the president from trying to do so by executive order.

Roberts lifted that hold on Tuesday, citing assurances he received last week from Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work that even if Obama tried to order the transfer of detainees, there isn’t enough time left in his administration to make it happen.

“Practically speaking, the clock has run out for the president,” Roberts said on the Senate floor Tuesday, adding that Fanning “has always had my support for this position” and that his issue with his nomination “has never been with Mr. Fanning’s character, his courage or his capability.”

Eric Fanning visited several Air Force bases in 2013. At the time, Fanning was the acting secretary of the Air Force. (Video: DVIDS)

Work said in a statement Tuesday night that he told Roberts the administration is still “trying to achieve the goal of closure with the support of Congress,” but that officials “recognize that there is limited time left to achieve that support.” Work added that he told Roberts no potential location for relocating Guantanamo detainees has been taken off the table.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been pushing for Fanning’s confirmation, applauded Roberts for being “a man of conviction regarding the detainees from Guantanamo.” This year’s defense policy bill, which the Senate will take up next week, prohibits the administration from moving detainees to U.S. soil in fiscal 2017, an extension of existing policy prohibiting the administration from shifting resources to facilitate such a transfer.

Advocacy groups applauded Fanning’s confirmation on Tuesday as a historic step for the military, which now has its first openly gay service leader only five years after Congress voted to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prohibited gay and lesbian Americans from serving openly in the military. The military is currently wrestling to implement a new policy that would allow transgender troops to serve openly as well.

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Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, in a statement Tuesday, called Fanning’s confirmation “a demonstration of the continued progress towards fairness and equality in our nation’s armed forces.”