Senate Approves Whiting, Guetlein Promotions, Extends FAA “Learning Period”

Senate Approves Whiting, Guetlein Promotions, Extends FAA “Learning Period”

The Senate tonight approved two critical national security space nominations after months of delay while Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) blocked military promotions. Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting and Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein each were promoted to General. Whiting will be the new commander of U.S. Space Command. Guetlein will be Vice Chief of Space Operations.  The Senate also passed a short extension to the FAA’s “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight as it gets ready to adjourn for the year.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting.

Whiting and Guetlein were both nominated by President Biden in July, but their promotions were caught up in Tuberville’s blockade of military promotions. He opposes DOD’s policy of paying travel costs for service members who need to seek reproductive health care in states other than their duty station because of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Tuberville used a Senator’s ability to put holds on nominations to make his point. His action was strongly opposed by both Republicans and Democrats who argued  military nominees are non-political and have no say in Administration policy and not only was it unfair to punish them, but damaging to national security. He remained unmoved until December 5 when he relented for most of the promotions when it appeared enough Republicans were willing to vote with Democrats to change Senate rules to confirm them.

He kept his hold, however, on 11 nominations for four-star positions — Admiral and General. Today he acquiesced on those as well.

The 11 nominations approved tonight are:

  • Space Force Lt. Gen. Stephen N. Whiting, nominated to be head of U.S. Space Command
  • Space Force Lt. Gen. Michael A. Guetlein, nominated to be Vice Chief of Space Operations
  • Air Force Lt. Gen. Kevin B. Schneider, nominated to be commander of Pacific Air Forces
  • Air Force Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, nominated to be head of Air Combat Command
  • Air Force Lt. Gen. Gregory M. Guillot, nominated to be head of U.S. Northern Command
  • Air Force Lt. Gen. Timothy D. Haugh, nominated to be head of U.S. Cyber Command
  • Air Force Lt. Gen. James C. Slife, nominated to be Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force
  • Army Lt. Gen. James J. Mingus, nominated to be Vice Chief of Staff of the Army
  • Navy Vice Adm. James W. Kilby, nominated to be Vice Chief of Naval Operations
  • Navy Vice Adm. Stephen T. Koehler, nominated to be head of U.S. Pacific Fleet
  • Navy Vice Adm. William J. Houston, nominated to be director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program
Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein

Whiting is currently Commander of Space Operations Command. Guetlein is Commander of Space Systems Command.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement: “Each of these leaders is highly qualified. They have dedicated their lives and careers to serving and defending our nation. They deserve our respect and gratitude, and I am pleased the Senate worked together to get them confirmed.”

The Senate typically approves military nominations in groups because considering them one-by-one is very time consuming and they usually are not controversial.

The Senate was supposed to adjourn for the holidays at the end of last week, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) kept the Senate in session this week hoping a deal could be struck on funding for Ukraine and Israel in exchange for Democratic concessions on border security. He said he would work to pass the nominations while waiting for those negotiations to finish.

Today it became clear that will not get done before the end of the year. Senators are eager to go home, putting more pressure on Tuberville to allow the nominees to be confirmed by unanimous consent instead of spending days debating each one. He agreed.

With the nominations confirmed, Schumer also quickly passed an extension of the FAA’s authorization, a final piece of “must pass” legislation before the end of the year. The bill (H.R. 6503) passed the House on December 11.

Among other things, it extends the “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight until March 9, 2024 that otherwise would have expired on January 1. The learning period, or “moratorium,” prohibits the FAA from promulgating new regulations on commercial human spaceflight while the industry is in its infancy.

Originally enacted in 2004 for eight years when commercial human spaceflight was expected to begin in that time frame, it has been repeatedly extended as it took much longer for the industry to materialize. Not until July 2021 did the non-NASA commercial business begin to take off with Blue Origin’s New Shepard-16. Since then Blue Origin, SpaceX, Axiom Space, and Virgin Galactic have made just over a dozen non-NASA commercial human spaceflights. Including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launches for NASA, the number would be closer to two dozen.

Advocates of extending the learning period argue that more experience is needed before deciding if additional regulation is required. A decision on whether to extend the learning period for another eight years is pending.

Schumer announced this evening that no more recorded votes are scheduled for this year. The Senate will adjourn tomorrow and return for legislative business on January 8, 2024. The House left town last week and will return on January 9.

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