WASHINGTON — A blanket sweep by a lone U.S. senator on all high-level military promotions could prevent confirmation of up to five of the nominees to serve as the president’s top military advisers.
Five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – including General Mark Milley, the chairman – are required by law to leave their posts within the next few months, starting in July. Meanwhile, most of the deputy leaders — many of whom are the front-runners or front-runners to replace the leaders — are preparing to take over the leadership of the agencies amid the Senate impasse.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., is doubling down his exclusion from military confirmations. He told Defense News that the looming vacancies will not prompt him to back down from the ongoing suspension of hundreds of military promotions, including joint chiefs.
“If they’re concerned about readiness, they need to go back to their old policy and we will,” Tuberville said Wednesday. “But they’re more concerned about social programs than military readiness.”
The senator imposed his suspension in February to protest the Pentagon’s new policy providing time off for troops to travel to get abortion services if they are in states where it is now illegal.
The first service chief vacancy will arise when Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger resigns on July 10, starting a steady stream of departures from the joint chiefs through October. Army Chief of Staff General James McConville is due to resign on August 8, followed by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday shortly after on August 21.
President Joe Biden has named Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown as the next chief of staff, replacing Milley, who must be out by early October, and creating another opening at the top of the Air Force.
“There’s no playbook for this,” Arnold Punaro, former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Defense News. “This is really a time for regular order, and not the chaos and uncertainty that we see in the system right now.”
The unrest sends a terrible message about the seriousness with which the United States takes its military advancement process, he said.
“It sends a signal of weakness to the rest of the world, that we can’t get our work done on time and that we’re mired in political chaos,” Punaro said. “This is not about the people involved. We want new officers and rising commanders to see that the military promotion system is based on merit and [who is] the best qualifications.”
The Senate typically confirms uncontested military nominees, including joint chiefs, using fast-track floor procedures through unanimous consent. But any individual senator can block a unanimous consent request, allowing Tuberville to force the Senate to go through numerous procedural votes on each individual nominee.
“All they have to do is put it on the floor and vote on it,” Tuberville told Defense News. “I will vote for it.”
Tuberville’s hold would require several weeks of limited time in the Senate to confirm just the nominees of the five joint leaders. Tuberville’s block also holds up more than 220 flag and general officer promotions, which would take several additional months of time-crunch if the Senate did nothing but confirm military nominees. The Senate expects to receive hundreds more military nominees in the coming months.
Democratic leaders appear reluctant to use valuable time to confirm otherwise uncontroversial nominees and worry that doing so will encourage other senators to block military promotions in order to extract political concessions.
“The Senate cannot encourage this behavior by handing out rewards to retain hundreds of candidates,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who chairs the military personnel committee, told Defense News.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., repeatedly refused to commit to scheduling floor votes for the joint leadership nominees when pressed by reporters at a news conference Wednesday.
“What Senator Tuberville did is just appalling,” Schumer told Defense News. “We believe that Republican senators, if they care about national security, should put pressure on him to release the holds.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last month that he disagrees with Tuberville’s military reservations.
And Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Defense News he hoped the issue could be resolved with a vote on the Pentagon’s abortion policy in the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act — a proposal Tuberville shot down .
“I don’t want to put it in the NDAA and then hold it because you’re going to have people who are against it,” Tuberville told Defense News. “I’d rather have the Ministry of Defense draft something, send it here and we vote on it, autonomously.”
What happens next?
The fact that the same nominees selected to lead the agencies will fill the vacancies in their capacity as the number two officer gives the Senate little immediate incentive to resolve the impasse.
Punaro said the deputy superintendents will step in and perform these duties to keep services running on a daily basis. Likewise, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Christopher Grady will serve as chairman on an interim basis if Brown is not confirmed by early October.
Delaying the start of new chiefs’ tenure hinders their ability to begin making desired changes in their services, he said.
Gen. Eric Smith, the No. 2 officer in the Marine Corps and Biden’s commanding officer nominee, is scheduled for a confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Given Smith’s current role as assistant commandant, the Marines are preparing for Smith to assume command duties when Berger leaves on July 10, even if the Senate has not confirmed him by then.
Confirmation hearings for the other joint leadership nominees, including Brown, are scheduled for July.
That includes Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Randy George to replace McConville. Biden has yet to name a new Chief of Naval Operations, but Vice President of the Navy Adm. Lisa Franzetti is widely considered the front-runner for the position.
And of course, Biden will have to nominate a new Air Force chief of staff to replace Brown, with current Air Force Vice President Gen. David Alvin seen as the frontrunner.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, DR.I., told Defense News “It would be absolutely irresponsible” not to have a congressionally confirmed service chief.
Senators have blocked votes on non-controversial nominees more often in recent years. For example, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has imposed a blanket freeze on all Defense Department nominations for more than a year.
They less often target military candidates. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., was the last senator to do so in 2020. Her hold lasted less than two weeks before she lifted it. Instead, Tuberville’s hold has lasted more than three months with no end in sight.
“What goes around comes around,” Reed told Defense News. “If basically this succeeds, then two years from now somebody who wants to ban assault weapons is going to say, ‘gee, I’m just going to keep all the generals.’
Jen Judson contributed to this report.
Bryant Harris is the congressional reporter for Defense News. He has covered foreign policy, national security, international affairs and US politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues for Air Force Times and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare for Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover US Air Force operations.
Megan Eckstein is the naval war reporter at Defense News. Covers military news since 2009, focusing on US Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest reporting stories from a ship. Megan is a graduate of the University of Maryland.
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