Marines have no Senate-confirmed commandant

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., takes his seat Tuesday before a confirmation hearing for the nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Charles Brown Jr., in the Senate Armed Services Committee.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., takes his seat Tuesday before a confirmation hearing for the nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Charles Brown Jr., in the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Posted July 11, 2023 at 4:00pm

Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s ongoing blockade of military nominations reached a critical juncture this week with the retirement of Commandant David Berger, leaving the Marines without a Senate-confirmed chief for the first time in more than a century. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pressing for a solution, though it remains far from clear what will convince Tuberville to yield. The Alabama Republican has said repeatedly that he will not stop his protest unless Congress votes on the Pentagon reproductive rights policy at the heart of the dispute. 

On Monday, Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., sought unanimous consent to proceed with confirmation of Berger’s nominated successor. Tuberville objected. 

Tuberbille’s hold bars speedy consideration of top nominees, forcing time-consuming procedural votes on each general and flag officer caught up in the blockade — a total that encompasses more than 251 military promotions to date, Reed said. 

Many Republicans have urged Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to simply consider the nominations through regular order — but doing so would be incredibly time consuming. The Congressional Research Service has estimated that it would take 668 hours (or 84 days, if the Senate were to spend eight hours each day) to confirm all of those nominees, Reed said. 

“‘Just vote’ is not an answer,” the Rhode Island Democrat said. “This is not a feasible solution to this issue.” 

Effects on the Pentagon

Berger’s relinquishment of office ceremony left President Joe Biden’s hand-picked successor, Gen. Eric Smith, in charge of the Marines — but only in an acting role. 

Without the full Senate’s blessing, Smith told reporters late last month that he’ll maintain his current post as assistant commandant while taking on the responsibilities associated with the service’s chief. That’s because by law, he said, the service’s second-in-command is required to step in when its leadership is incapacitated or absent. 

That arrangement, he said at the time, will create a “ripple effect” that “is actually pretty significant” as he assigns various job duties within the assistant commandant portfolio to officers, who he predicted will, in turn, need to hand off certain tasks to others. 

As an acting leader, Smith is also unable to release the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, which outlines a new leader’s plans for the service’s strategic direction and aids in guiding the broader force. 

Additionally, Smith said he cannot use the security detail or live in the commandant’s house without being confirmed.  

Tuberville on the Senate floor Monday said his hold would have “minimal effect” on Smith’s ability to helm the service.  

“There may be a delay in his planning guidance and yet he cannot move into the commandant’s residence, but there is little doubt about Gen. Smith’s ability to lead effectively, even now,” Tuberville continued. 

While Smith said the implications of going without a Senate-confirmed chief “are not ideal,” he stopped short of scolding lawmakers, saying that doing so would amount to “politicizing the military” since it’s within senators’ rights to place holds on nominees. 

The Pentagon’s top leader, however, addressed the issue more directly. 

During his remarks at Berger’s ceremony, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III underscored the importance of “stable and orderly leadership transitions” for readiness while denouncing the impact of “extra uncertainty” on military families. 

“We have a sacred duty to do right by those who volunteer to wear the cloth of our nation,” he said. “I remain confident that all Americans can come together to agree on that basic obligation to those who keep us safe. I am also confident that the United States Senate will meet its responsibilities.” 

Seeking an off-ramp 

Democrats on Tuesday blamed the escalating crisis on Republican leaders, who they say have not done enough to dissuade Tuberville from his blockade. 

“It’s not about him — it’s about the Republican minority, because they are enabling him to do it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Armed Services Committee. “If I was doing this on the Democratic side, Schumer would lock me in the office and make it so painful that I would eventually have to stop doing it.” 

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he opposes Tuberville’s tactics, as has Armed Services ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss. But Wicker on Tuesday struck a more conciliatory tone, insisting he and Tuberville were trying to find an acceptable way to end the standoff. 

“We’re all working to try to reach a resolution,” he said. “We need the generals in place. And we’re all working, so I appreciate the suggestions of our colleagues across the aisle.”

During the committee markup of NDAA last month, Democratic leaders added a bill to the agenda that would strike down the Defense Department’s reproductive rights policy in an effort to placate Tuberville. Ultimately, that bid didn’t work, and the bill’s text was replaced with a requirement to study the policy.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, the bill’s sponsor, said she would make another effort on the floor to bring the reproductive rights policy up for a vote.

“I’m just hoping we can find a resolution and that would be for DOD to reverse their policy. That would be the easy way to do it,” she said. “I have another amendment that I am going to run on the floor when NDAA comes up, and hopefully we can get some support for it.” 

The issue could come to a head on the House side this week, when lawmakers consider their version of the NDAA on the floor. Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, has filed an amendment that would force the Pentagon to rescind its policy, with dozens of Republican co-sponsors. 

But until a resolution is reached, the Pentagon could see additional turmoil in its top ranks. More than half of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will have left their roles between July and October, including Army chief of staff Gen. James McConville, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley in addition to Berger. 

In all, DOD has said that the hold could impact up to 650 flag and general officers by year’s end should it continue.

Meanwhile, Democrats say Tuberville’s holds are damaging national security by leaving key roles unfilled at a time of rising tension with China as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“If they [Republicans] say that they believe in a strong and safe military and they want to prepare and plan for our future, then they need to be all in on this — and they’re not,” Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “Clearly.”