The commandant of the US Marine Corps, Gen David Berger, stepped down on Monday, leaving the military branch without a confirmed leader for the first time in more than 150 years.
The vacancy comes as one Republican senator, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, has staged a months-long blockade of Pentagon nominations to protest against the department’s abortion policies.
Berger’s assistant commandant and potential successor, Gen Eric Smith, has stepped in as the acting leader of the marines while his nomination remains stalled in the Senate. Smith became the marines’ first acting commandant since 1859, when Archibald Henderson died in office.
Smith’s nomination is one of more than 200 high-level Pentagon nominations that have already been affected by Tuberville’s blockade. In February, Tuberville launched his campaign of obstruction in response to the Pentagon’s new policy, enacted after the reversal of Roe v Wade, to cover travel costs for service members or service members’ spouses who have to leave their state to access abortion care.
The Senate generally confirms non-controversial nominees like Smith by unanimous consent, but any single senator’s objection forces a floor vote. The laborious process of approving hundreds of stalled nominations via floor vote would probably take months, sparking criticism among Democrats that Tuberville’s antics may jeopardize military readiness.
“What the senator is doing by holding these nominations, it’s a threat to our national security. Period. That’s what he’s doing,” the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said last month. “These are important nominations that we need, that the American people need to keep our country safe.”
Tuberville has rejected such criticism, writing in a Washington Post op-ed last month: “My hold is not affecting readiness. Acting officials are in each one of the positions that are due for a promotion. The hold affects only those at the very top – generals and flag officers. The people who actually fight are not affected at all.”
Tuberville shows no sign of abandoning his blockade, and the standoff could soon affect the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the highest-ranking US military officer, as Gen Mark Milley, retires in September.