Senators finally voted to confirm three top military leaders this week, but hundreds of other general and flag officers remain in limbo including the nominees to lead the Navy and Air Force.
By Thursday, the Senate had voted to confirm Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Army Gen. Randy George as Army chief of staff; and Marine Gen. Eric Smith as Marine Corps commandant.
Still, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) continues to prevent the Senate from using a routine procedure to confirm military nominations en masse. More than 300 general and flag officer promotions are currently awaiting a vote, and that number could swell to about 650 by the end of the year if Tuberville does not lift his blockade, according to the Defense Department.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a statement on Thursday calling Tuberville’s hold on hundreds of military promotions “unnecessary and unsafe.”
“Ensuring we have Senate-confirmed military leaders in place is critical to the defense of our nation and the readiness of our force,” Austin said. “I’m committed to engaging with members of Congress until all of our highly qualified general and flag officers are confirmed.”
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Even with the recent confirmations of Brown, George, and Smith, the U.S. military’s top leadership still has some major vacancies. Navy Adm. Lisa Franchetti, the first woman nominated to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been performing the duties of Chief of Naval Operations while also continuing to serve as Vice Chief of Naval Operations for more than a month.
The Senate also has not voted on Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin’s nomination to replace Brown as Air Force chief of staff. After Brown assumes the role of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 1, Allvin will become dual-hatted as the Air Force’s acting and vice service chief.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall recently called on Tuberville to lift his hold on promotions, saying that his actions are hurting the lives of Air Force general officers and their families.
“They are all doing their duty and making whatever sacrifice we ask of them, including the ones associated with your holds,” Kendall said on Sept. 11 at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “They all took an oath to defend the Constitution, and they are fulfilling that oath today. US Senators take a very similar oath. On behalf of all the men and women serving their country honorably today, who cannot speak for themselves, I am asking you to lift the blanket hold you have on over 300 general officers awaiting Senate approval of their well-earned promotions.”
Tuberville, who is protesting a Defense Department policy that covers the travel costs for troops who need to travel out of state for abortions and other reproductive care, has argued that senators should vote on each nomination individually.
Steven Stafford, a spokesman for Tuberville, said that the senator opposes “a number” of the general and flag officers who have been nominated for promotions.
“The longer the hold drags on the more we can scrutinize these nominees,” Stafford told Task & Purpose. “Individual voting also allows for Senators to scrutinize the nominees.”
But the process of voting on each nominee individually could take months and leave the Senate little to no time to work on other government business. Back when the number of nominees on hold was 273, the Congressional Research Service estimated it would take nearly 700 hours to confirm all the general and flag officers awaiting confirmation at the time.
On Friday, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that he and his Democratic colleagues will continue to fight for the hundreds of general and flag officers awaiting confirmation.
“Instead of one-off attempts to maneuver around his own partisan blockade, Sen.Tuberville should immediately allow swift consideration of all military promotions,” Reed said. “The vast, overwhelming majority of U.S. Senators from both parties prioritize national security. Working together, we will overcome this dangerous blockade.””
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has suggested that the Senate might vote on groups of military nominations going forward, according to Defense News.
“I think you’re going to see some big blocks that we needed to break the ice, but we’re going to get them all through,” Kaine told Defense News. “We haven’t taken anything off the table, and we’re going to continue to increase the pressure.”
Kaine is currently working with his fellow senators to evaluate what next steps need to be taken, a congressional staffer told Task & Purpose.
It is unclear whether Tuberville would support voting on the military promotions in batches rather than individually.
Tuberville also enjoys support from other Republican lawmakers who believe the Defense Department’s policy of helping to pay for service members to travel out of state for abortions violates the 1976 Hyde Amendment, under which Defense Department facilities can only provide abortions in instances of rape or incest, or when a mother’s life is at risk.
The current Defense Department policy, which was enacted after the Supreme Court struck down federal protections for abortions in 2022, does not limit what type of reproductive care service members who travel out of states where abortion is now illegal can receive.
“The sole purpose of this policy is to try to find an all too cute, way too tricky route around what federal law requires flatly and consistent with the spirit if not also the letter of the law,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said during a Sept. 7 speech on the Senate floor.
With no solution to the impasse on the horizon, the U.S. military will continue to find ways to operate with hundreds of senior leader positions vacant.
The Defense Department is continuing to work with Congress to get the hundreds of pending nominations approved to ensure that it has the right leaders in place to defend the country, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.
“If you will allow me to extend my football analogy that I used recently: With the confirmation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we have a quarterback solo on the field, on the line of scrimmage facing players of the opposing team, and we owe it to our team to – and to the coach – to put all of our other players in the field and enable them to win the game,” Ryder said. “And so, as I highlighted, the secretary remains committed to working with members of Congress to do exactly that.”
UPDATE: 09/22/2023; this story was updated with comments from Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
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