Air Force Secretary nominee Deborah Lee James. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The Air Force is one step closer to having its top civilian appointee confirmed by the Senate, after Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., filed cloture motions for Deborah Lee James and three other nominations Monday.
The move sets the stage for a pre-Christmas vote on some of the Obama administration’s key political appointees.
If confirmed, James will become the second female Air Force secretary. That position has been empty since Michael Donley stepped down in June.
The other three nominees who had cloture filed were Heather Anne Higginbottom, to be deputy secretary of state for management and resources; Anne Patterson, to be an assistant secretary of state; and Jeh Charles Johnson, to be secretary of Homeland Security.
The move toward cloture on all the nominations is a result of Reid invoking the so-called “nuclear option” on Nov. 21, which saw Senate Democrats vote to remove the filibuster as an option for most political appointees, a move proponents say was a way to end a massive gridlock of nominations in Congress.
By invoking cloture, Reid sets up a 30-hour clock, meaning a vote could come by Wednesday afternoon.
James, president of the technology and engineering sector at SAIC and an assistant defense secretary for Reserve affairs from 1993 to 1998, is expected to be confirmed. Her nomination had previously been held up by New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte over reports that the Air Force intends to cut the A-10, but she released her hold in October.
Her arrival at the Air Force could not come at a better time for the service, which could find six of its seven top civilian positions vacant by the end of the year.
As of Jan. 1, both Daniel Ginsberg, assistant secretary for manpower and Reserve affairs, and General Counsel Charles Blanchard will have departed the Pentagon. Jamie Morin, the assistant secretary for financial management and comptroller, is still in place, but his nomination to head up the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation could be moved on at any time, leaving another potential vacancy.
The slot of assistant secretary for installations, environment, and logistics remains open without a nomination from President Obama. The role of assistant secretary for acquisition has been empty since early 2012, although the deputy, William LaPlante, was recently nominated to fill the role.
That has left Eric Fanning, confirmed as undersecretary of the Air Force in April, as the top civilian in the service — and forced him to fill a number of different roles.
Speaking at an Air Force Association event in November, Fanning pushed for Congress to confirm James.
“I’m going to be home alone here pretty soon. If Debbie James doesn’t get confirmed, I’m it,” Fanning said. He later joked ,“I like to think the Air Force is in good hands, but it would be nice to have more hands up there. ... I’ve gotten to the point where I spend half the day delegating myself.”
Not having a secretary has been particularly tough, Fanning said, because certain duties must be performed by either a secretary or an undersecretary.
“There are a bunch of meetings in the building that only one of those two can go to,” Fanning said. “So between trying to go out and see the Air Force and hitting those meetings on the third floor, I don’t have any white space on my schedule anymore.”
The lack of civilian appointees is “a major challenge” for the service, according to Doug Birkey, government relations director for the Air Force Association.
Birkey harkened back to 2005 when Michael Dominguez, assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and Reserve affairs, was forced into the role of acting secretary as the last time the service faced this many openings up top.
For now, Fanning believes the service is getting by on the strength of its senior executive service civilians and with help from principal deputies, but “it becomes a bit of a paperwork issue for me, because I can’t sign off on certain things.”
But Birkey warns that positions, especially the role of secretary, need to be filled as the service enters another round of budget fights.
“It causes a lot of balancing to occur, and you can only balance so much before something slips,” said Birkey. “Given the number of challenges the Air Force has in play, it’s an exceedingly difficult environment to try to handle all of that with one guy filling all the roles.”
With an overwhelmed point person, “you see slip ups that occur,” Birkey said. “People don’t take advantage of opportunities that would be good for the service because they are inundated and flooded.”
John. T. Bennett in Washington contributed to this report