The Senate confirmed Heather Wilson to be Air Force secretary Monday, making her only the second of President Donald Trump’s nominees to be approved for a Pentagon post.
The vote was 76-22. Only Democrats opposed Wilson, a former Republican congresswoman from New Mexico.
Her confirmation was a rare victory for the Trump administration in its long slog to fill senior vacancies at the Pentagon. Dozens of national security positions remain unfilled, with Obama holdovers or civil servants filling many senior jobs on an acting basis.
For instance, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been confirmed by the Senate. But his top deputy, Bob Work, is a holdover from the Obama administration until his designated successor, Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, is confirmed.
The president’s initial choice for Army secretary, billionaire New York financier Vincent Viola, withdrew in February amid difficulty untangling his finances. A second Army pick, Tennessee Republican state senator Mark Green, withdrew Friday in the wake of growing opposition over comments he made about LBGT rights and Muslims.
Trump’s first pick to be Navy secretary, Philip Bilden, another wealthy financier, also withdrew because of problems untangling his finances. Investment banker Richard Spencer is now reported to be the new leading candidate, although the president has not yet signaled his next move.
Trump has yet to announce nominees for other key Defense Department slots such as undersecretary for policy or undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics. Mattis had settled on retired diplomat Anne Patterson as his choice for the policy post, but withdrew his support after significant opposition surfaced in the Senate.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is set to hold confirmation hearings Tuesday for three more nominees — Pentagon comptroller, deputy comptroller and director of the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation.
Wilson served in the House from 1998 to 2009 and was a member of the Armed Services Committee. Since 2013, she has been president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
A retired Air Force captain who graduated from the Air Force Academy, Wilson will be the first gradate from the academy to become secretary of the Air Force.
The Senate Armed Services Committee advanced Wilson’s nomination on a 22-5 vote in April.
During her confirmation hearing, she faced tough questions about past ethics issues, including whether after she left Congress she skirted ethics rules as a consultant for Sandia Corporation, a subsidiary of defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin.
She was also grilled on a separate case in which she contacted a New Mexico U.S. attorney over federal corruption cases in 2006. In both cases, Wilson staunchly denied any ethics violations.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was satisfied with Wilson’s answers, while ranking Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island called her responses "incomplete and unsatisfactory." And her nomination was held up briefly by an unidentified Democratic senator.