WASHINGTON – Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., is blocking all civilian Pentagon nominations until the Defense Department makes it easier for members of the military serving overseas to vote.
Up for re-election this year, Burns has been pushing the department to allow local governments to electronically transmit ballots to the military abroad. Several lawmakers are concerned the overseas voting process for troops is so complex and time consuming their ballots will arrive too late.
Seventeen senators — 11 Republicans and six Democrats — wrote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld earlier this year asking him to ease voting for the military.
Under the proposed new system, absentee military voters could download and print the ballots and return them by mail. Under the current system, members of the military must use regular mail to ask local officials for a ballot, which is then mailed to them. The voter must fill out the ballot by hand and use regular mail to send it back to his or her state.
Burns spokesman Derek Hunter said Burns decided to place the holds "in order to pressure the bureaucracy into doing the right thing for our military men and women."
Hunter said the senator is not blocking the nomination of any uniformed officers. All senators have a right to place holds on legislation or nominations, forcing supporters to find 60 votes for passage or confirmation.
"Senator Burns first decided to take this action last week when it became clear the bureaucrats in the Pentagon were not serious about implementing the new absentee voter system which would remove the hurdles to overseas military voting," Hunter said.
Burns added an amendment to an Iraq spending bill this year that would give the Pentagon $2.5 million to implement the new voting process. The legislation became law, but Hunter said Burns is frustrated with "a complete lack of progress" in implementing the system before Election Day.
Pentagon spokesman Todd Vician said he could not immediately comment on the holds.
Civilian nominations pending in the Senate include Anita Blair, to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs; Benedict S. Cohen, to be general counsel of the Department of the Army; Frank R. Jimenez, to be general counsel of the Department of the Navy; David H. Laufman, to be Inspector General for the Department of Defense and Robert L. Wilkie, to be assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs.