WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Committee members grilled Department of Defense officials in a Thursday morning hearing on President Joe Biden’s decision to keep the U.S. Space Command headquarters in Colorado, a move that some Republicans criticized as an act of “political manipulation.”

In early 2021, after a multiyear review process and a meeting with former President Donald J. Trump, the U.S. Air Force named Huntsville, Ala., as its top choice for Command headquarters. However, the Biden administration later launched its own review of the process, culminating in a decision this July to keep the base at its interim headquarters at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Several members of the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee expressed outrage over the Biden administration’s move, with Chairman Mike D. Rogers, whose district neighbors the one that includes Huntsville, leading the charge.

“According to Air Force documentation transmitted to this Committee just two days ago, Colorado Springs is projected to cost $426 million more than Huntsville, Alabama, over for headquarters operations the next 15 years,” Rogers said in his opening statement. “That’s $426 million, at least, of weapons procurement, research and development, or maintenance for the rest of DoD that this Administration has decided to spend on their political manipulation.”

Some Republicans contended that Biden aimed to punish Alabama, a traditionally red state, to favor a state that has voted for Democrats in the previous four presidential elections. Department of Defense officials, however, said that keeping the base in Colorado helps the U.S. Space Command maintain “operational readiness.”

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III told committee members Thursday that he had supported the decision to move the base from Colorado to Alabama but was overruled by the president. Despite that, Kendall and the two other defense officials serving as witnesses – U.S. Space Command Commander Gen. James Dickinson and U.S. Space Force Chief of Operations Chance Saltzman – all maintained they back Biden’s final decision.

“In my view, selecting Colorado Springs as the permanent basing location for U.S. Space Command best sustains our human capital investments and ultimately maintains our readiness at the highest levels while imposing the least disruption to the mission and the workforce,” Dickinson said.

Moving the base to Alabama would require relocating civilian personnel, Dickinson noted. The Colorado base currently employs about 1,400 individuals, about 60% of which are civilians, according to Dickinson. Additionally, he said readiness is a priority as China and Russia expand their offensive space capabilities.

However, Republican committee members, including Rogers, argued that operational readiness did not apply to this case. Rogers claimed that Dickinson previously told him that construction of a new base in Alabama would not interfere with U.S. Space Command operations at the interim headquarters in Colorado.

Later, in a tense moment between the congressman and the general, Rogers said Dickinson had responded “no” in a previous interaction when asked whether he would recommend Colorado Springs as a permanent location for a U.S. Space Command headquarters. Dickinson claimed there had been a misunderstanding in that previous meeting.

The Associated Press reported in July that Dickinson persuaded Biden to not move the base out of Colorado. 

Republican members of the committee, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), also suggested Biden may have decided to not move the base to Alabama because the state has an abortion ban whereas Colorado does not. 

Gaetz, who went in and out of the hearing room Thursday, added he believes Alabama is being punished for not adhering to the “radical gender ideology” in effect at the Department of Defense. He did not elaborate further. The congressman is one of 10 members of Congress opposed to any stopgap measure that could keep the government from shutting down on Oct. 1.

But one Democrat called for the Biden administration to change its decision. 

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), who represents another region of Alabama, enthusiastically endorsed Huntsville for the headquarters of U.S. Space Command. While not openly criticizing Biden himself for deciding to keep the base in Colorado, Sewell suggested that the president may not have known “all the facts” prior to making his decision.

The congresswoman said when Dickinson had previously spoken to the Alabama congressional delegation, he said operational readiness would not be affected if the base moved to Alabama. Dickinson responded that he was unaware whether Biden knew that information.

Sewell also challenged Dickinson’s assertion that moving the Space Command headquarters to Alabama could cause staffing challenges since the Colorado Springs base currently employs contract workers in addition to other civilian employees.

“To say that you don’t have temporary staff [and] that you don’t go out and look for temporary civilian staff to fill your gaps is absolutely summarily wrong,” Sewell said.

Rogers said at the end of the hearing that he would ask the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General – which are independent, nonpartisan officials tasked to prevent and detect waste and fraud – to investigate the decision-making process for the headquarters.