Democrats step up pressure on Biden to reverse Trump’s decision on space HQ

Last updated on February 28, 2023

At first blush it looks like a standard case of home-state parochial politics: One state’s congressional delegation lobbying the administration not to relocate a government facility to another state.

But Colorado’s last-ditch bid to stop U.S. Space Command from moving to Alabama is anything but typical. It’s pitting Joe Biden against Donald Trump, and an emerging blue state against a solidly red one where Trump’s political career took off in 2016. On top of that, it’s become the latest front in the culture war over abortion.

Colorado lawmakers are pressing the Biden administration to keep the command in their backyard, where it’s been housed temporarily since the headquarters was reestablished in 2019. In recent weeks the state’s senators have aired the issue on the Senate floor, voted against an uncontroversial Pentagon nominee and threatened to hold up even more picks to secure a meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the matter.

And one of the state’s senators is even seizing on the politics surrounding abortion and LGBTQ issues, arguing that sending the command from a blue state to a red one takes away the rights of service members.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) “has raised the issue of reproductive health care access in his conversations about the Space Command basing decision,” said one congressional aide, who asked for anonymity to discuss private conversations between Bennet and the Pentagon.

The senator, the aide added, “has serious concerns about the impact that abortion ban laws have on readiness and our national security.”

It’s the latest turn in a saga that’s dragged on for three years after Trump personally directed the Air Force to choose Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, as the command’s permanent headquarters. Alabama and Colorado were the two finalists in the Air Force’s search.

The decision, if given the final signoff by the Biden administration, would uproot the fledgling command from its current location at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. Since the original decision, members of Colorado’s delegation in both parties have decried the move to a Trump-friendly state as political favoritism that will delay the organization from achieving full operating status.

“I haven’t found any Democratic senator who thinks it’s a good idea to allow a precedent to stand that encourages politics to overrule the judgment of our military command,” Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper said in an interview.

The Biden White House vowed to reassess the choice after lawmakers blasted the basing decision. The Air Force secretary must still determine whether to follow through with Trump’s decision or keep the command in Colorado.

The Air Force was expected to announce a final decision at the end of 2022, but the deadline passed with no ruling.

“We don’t have anything new on the decision timeline,” the service said in a statement. The service declined to say why a choice has not been made.

Lawmakers on both sides of the argument say they’re in the dark on when the Air Force might finally make a call, but both states’ delegations have said they believe they will prevail.

“I do think the delay is, in my view, a positive thing,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.). “My read of that is that the administration is taking a harder look and a fresh look at it and revisiting certain elements of the decision. That’s what I hope they’re doing.”

The commander, Gen. James Dickinson, has said Space Command won’t be fully operational until the final basing decision is made.

Pros and cons

U.S. Space Command was restarted by the Trump administration in 2019 as it sought to emphasize the importance of the military’s space mission, coinciding with the creation of the Space Force. Space Command, which oversees the operations of military space assets and defending satellites, had been its own outfit since the 1980s, but was folded into U.S. Strategic Command following the creation of Northern Command in 2002.

Colorado Springs and Huntsville were two of six finalists selected by the Air Force in late 2020 for the permanent headquarters. The list included military installations in Florida, Nebraska, Texas and New Mexico.

Colorado lawmakers contend permanently keeping Space Command in its temporary home is more efficient and will ultimately prove better for national security because it will be near Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command.

With a large military space presence already in the state, Colorado’s leaders argue that politics alone was the deciding factor in the Trump administration selecting Alabama.

They point to comments Trump made after leaving office boasting that he made the call to move Space Command.

“I hope you know that. [They] said they were looking for a home and I single-handedly said ‘let’s go to Alabama.’ They wanted it. I said ‘let’s go to Alabama. I love Alabama.’” Trump said on an Alabama-based radio show in August 2021.

Alabama’s almost entirely GOP delegation says Huntsville — dubbed Rocket City because of the large aerospace industry presence there — checks all the boxes for the new command.

The Pentagon visited each of the six prospective headquarters sites between Dec. 8, 2020, and Jan. 7, 2021, where experts gathered data and refined cost estimates. Those cost estimates were not released publicly, according to the Defense Department’s inspector general.

“Democrats said it was political, but the best place to put it is in Huntsville,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said in an interview.

“The only reason you would leave it in Colorado is because that’s where it’s at right now,” Tuberville said. “But we need to make sure it’s in the right spot. We have the missile defense. We have Redstone Arsenal, NASA. You name it, we got it.”

Since a headquarters decision was announced in January 2021, both the Defense Department IG and the Government Accountability Office released reports that questioned whether the selection process was adequate.

DoD IG found the Air Force base analysis that was conducted under the Trump administration’s direction “complied with law and policy” when selecting Alabama as the headquarters location, while the GAO asserted the service’s base location analysis had “significant shortfalls in its transparency and credibility.”

Neither report determined whether Trump meddled in the decision.

Both oversight groups agree a resolution was reached during a White House meeting with high-ranking officials on Jan. 11, 2021.

Meeting attendees included the former president and top Pentagon leaders who have since left — the acting defense secretary, the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs, the Air Force secretary and the assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy.

Days before the meeting, the Pentagon received new information that if Colorado was selected the military could renovate a building instead of having to construct a new one to house the new headquarters.

But the Space Force did not deliver an updated estimate to Air Force officials ahead of the White House meeting, according to GAO.

The Pentagon is keeping the cost estimates private and are not included in the GAO report because the information is designated as “sensitive and privileged.”

Opting for renovation instead of new construction would allow for the command to reach full operational much sooner than the estimated six years.

In interviews with the GAO, the head of Space Command, the top Space Force general, and the former vice Joint Chiefs chair, all said they conveyed in the meeting that the headquarters should remain in Colorado because that was the best way to reach full operational capability as quickly as possible.

Bennet echoed the same concerns during a speech on the Senate floor this month.

It is important the Biden administration not ratify “a political decision that was made in the last few days of the Trump administration,” Bennet said, referring to the former president dismissing the counsel of Pentagon officials who recommended the headquarters remain in Colorado.

Bennet underscored it is not only expected to be cheaper and faster to keep Space Command in Colorado, but the military would not have to worry over the number of civilian workers who won’t opt to move to Alabama. Roughly 60 percent of the Space Command workforce are civilians, he said.

“Decisions of this importance shouldn’t be made this way. It should be in the interest of our national security. And the Biden administration has the opportunity to restore the integrity of this process,” Bennet said.

Renewed fight

The Colorado delegation fought the move when it was initially announced, but had gone quiet in the following months. They rekindled their efforts last month when Hickenlooper and Bennet were the only Democrats to join Republicans in opposition to the confirmation of Brendan Owens, the nominee to oversee facilities and energy programs at the Pentagon. The pair said they opposed him because the Pentagon had brushed off their efforts to meet with Austin to discuss Space Command.

Owens was still confirmed despite most Republicans also opposing him.

Bennet also threatened to hold up other nominees to secure a meeting with Austin. Hickenlooper and Bennet met with Austin to discuss the decision on Jan. 26, though no resolution was reached.

“He’s got a lot on his plate, so he wasn’t versed in the details of the issue,” Hickenlooper said. “But he listened very thoughtfully and I think he took it very seriously.”

But Bennet continued to press the issue. A spokesperson said Bennet placed a hold on Ravi Chaudhary, Biden’s nominee to oversee Air Force installations. He dropped the hold this month after meeting separately with Chaudhary and Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall where he “reiterated his longstanding concerns” with the basing decision. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering has not been previously reported.

Some opponents are also highlighting how the climate in the U.S. has changed since an initial decision was made in January 2021. Many Democrats are unsettled by moving service members from a blue to a red state after the Supreme Court dealt a blow to abortion rights last year.

With the end of nationwide federal protections for abortion, many Democrats have raised the impacts on troops stationed in states where the procedure is now banned or significantly limited. Bennet has publicly raised similar concerns in the proposed Space Command move.

“I’m deeply concerned about how the Dobbs decision and state abortion bans will affect Space Command’s workforce and readiness if the command leaves Colorado,” Bennet said in a statement to Military.com in August.

Another driver for the Biden administration to keep the headquarters in Colorado and not move to a conservative state are rights for LGBTQ people.

“It’s hard not to think about the dramatically more hostile environment in Alabama when it comes to reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights,” said one Democratic aide. “It’ll mean many of the civilians who work for Space Command may not move with it. And service members will be forced to move somewhere where they’ll lose those rights.”

Though both Tuberville and Hickenlooper downplayed the role the Supreme Court decision would play in the basing move, the impact on troops has been in focus after the reversal of abortion protections under Roe v. Wade.

Even Austin, who is usually not outspoken on political issues, moved to shore up troops’ access for abortion. He issued a memo in October directing the Pentagon to pay for service members to travel costs for abortions, though not for the procedure itself, arguing the “practical effects of recent changes” in laws will hurt military readiness.

Formal policies issued this month cover travel costs for obtaining abortions as well as administrative leave, as many troops are stationed in states where the procedure is now illegal.

Tuberville was among the GOP lawmakers who slammed the move. He vowed to hold up civilian Pentagon nominations as well as top military promotions over the new policy.

The issue, however, isn’t purely about red states vs. blue states. If Space Command doesn’t move to Alabama, the headquarters will remain in reliably conservative Colorado Springs. The area and its military assets are represented by Republican Doug Lamborn, who chairs the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee. Lamborn has also criticized the move as one of political favoritism over national security needs.

The state’s other two Republican House members, Reps. Ken Buck and Lauren Boebert, have also protested the decision and signed several letters with Democrats arguing to keep the command in Colorado.

Yet if the Biden administration decides to reverse the earlier decision, it could open itself up to criticism that it’s making a political call, just like the Trump White House. A reversal also would draw pushback from Alabama’s delegation, including Rep. Mike Rogers, who has new tools at his disposal as the House Armed Services Committee chair.

In the meantime, Alabama lawmakers are confident the Trump administration’s decision will be upheld.

“Nobody’s saying, but they’ve done several more reviews on it in the last two years,” Tuberville said of the final decision. “And we’ve pretty much passed all the tests.”