650 Military Promotions Threatened as Senator Shows No Signs of Relenting

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talks to reporters in an interview about his blockade of military nominees, at the Capitol in Washington.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talks to reporters in an interview about his blockade of military nominees, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

About 650 general and flag officer promotions could be delayed this year by a legislative hold on Capitol Hill imposed by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., over military abortion policies, according to the Pentagon.

Tuberville’s hold could not only hold up the promotions of rank and position -- the vast majority of the 852 total officers at those ranks -- but is also threatening recent major nominations for a new Joint Chiefs chairman and Marine Corps commandant, as well as the growing list of other key replacements.

The potential backlog is causing increasing concern inside the Pentagon, as Tuberville refuses to back down in his opposition to the military providing leave for women to have civilian abortion care. Without those confirmations, a senior defense official told Military.com that the vast majority of the military's general and flag officer positions "could be vacant at a time when our military is expected to defend the nation."

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Despite the concern, many top positions filled by senior officers could be filled temporarily by deputies and others, or officers without term limits could stay on until lawmakers finally approve a successor, meaning the military would not be riddled with actual vacancies.

Tuberville’s hold effectively puts a stop to the Senate’s usual process of regularly approving large batches of military promotions, which make up the constant churn of advancement and reassignment inside the military's six branches.

The leadership situation is set to get more dire in the next four months. Among the promotions that could be disrupted, the department has 64 three- and four-star positions that make up the staffing for a growing number of top-level positions. All of those will require Senate approval.

The Pentagon will lose service chiefs for the Army, Navy and Marine Corps to retirement. The head of the U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, as well as the commander of Northern Command, are also set to swap out.

Top officers for the Army and Marine Corps, as well as Cyber Command and the NSA, have already been named, and require a Senate vote. New commanders of both the Fifth Fleet in the Middle East and Seventh Fleet in the Pacific are also in the hands of senators.

As of this week, Tuberville's hold applies to 221 nominees.

A hold does not prevent the Senate from confirming nominees, but it does mean that the chamber would need to hold roll-call votes on each nominee individually -- something that would take months under the Senate's infamously slow pace. Typically, the Senate confirms military nominees in batches with voice votes.

Tuberville placed his hold, which covers all nominees for one star and above, in February in protest of the Pentagon's new travel and leave policy for reproductive health care. Earlier that month, the department announced it would pay for travel costs and allow service members to take non-chargeable leave to obtain abortions that the department cannot by law perform itself.

"I will keep it on until the Pentagon follows the law or changes the law," Tuberville said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "It is that simple."

The Pentagon policy, which also applies to fertility treatments not covered by the Pentagon, was a response to last year's Supreme Court decision that allowed states to ban abortion. The landmark decision raised fears that female service members who cannot choose where they are stationed would lose access to reproductive health care.

Meanwhile, Tuberville has also argued the Pentagon has too many generals.

Past and present defense officials, including Secretary Lloyd Austin, have warned the hold harms U.S. security, in part by adding to the stress and uncertainty military families face since they cannot plan for life in their new duty stations.

Democrats have taken to the Senate floor several times in attempts to end Tuberville's blockade, most recently on Wednesday, but Tuberville and some Republican allies have objected each time.

Despite the fact that frustration is growing within Tuberville's own party at his tactics -- Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky last month took the rare step of publicly breaking with Tuberville -- the standoff shows no signs of ending any time soon.

Rather than leaving the most senior positions in the military open, Democrats could hold roll-call votes for a few of the highest-ranking jobs. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., this week appeared to allude to the likelihood of doing so for Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, who is nominated to replace Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley.

"Let's carry this forward for six months or a year. We don't have a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I think we will because I think a majority of my colleagues will realize how important it is to have that. But it won't be done in an efficient, coordinated way. It will be objected to. It will be argued about," Reed said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

It would not be unprecedented to hold roll-call votes for Joint Chiefs chairman or the service chiefs, though they are also more often confirmed by voice vote. Milley was confirmed in an 89-1 roll call in 2019, and Brown himself was confirmed to Air Force chief in a 98-0 roll call in 2020.

The process would not be a feasible workaround for every promotion, though, given the time-consuming nature and the need to balance nomination votes with other priorities, including must-pass bills such as annual spending and defense policy legislation.

The senior Pentagon official said that if the top military positions are allowed to go vacant, then they would be filled by confirmed deputies.

In the case of Brown and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that role would be filled by the vice chairman. The Army and Marine Corps leadership posts would be filled by the vice chief of staff and the assistant commandant, respectively.

Meanwhile, combatant commanders do not have statutory term limits so they will remain in place until they are confirmed for their next assignment, the senior official said.

While temporary fills have the advantage of putting a person in a vacant position, they are often considered far less effective than someone permanent, especially when it comes to dealing with foreign counterparts and allies, who have little way of knowing how much to trust the choices or assurances of someone who hasn't actually been chosen for the job by the president.

Tuberville has dismissed concerns that his hold harms the military by arguing that current officers will stay in place until their successors are confirmed, but has not acknowledged that the service chiefs and Joint Chiefs chairman have statutory deadlines they have to leave by.

Additionally, vice chiefs from the services testified to Congress last month that personal circumstances mean many officers who don't have term limits will retire when they originally planned, regardless of whether their successor is confirmed.

Tuberville has also argued families won't be harmed, because the generals and admirals would get back pay dated to when their nominations were first announced. But Reed this week said that's not true.

"The Department of Defense confirmed for the Armed Services Committee this week that there is no back pay mechanism for these officers," Reed said on the floor. "Their date of rank is the date of their appointment, which for general and flag officers can only occur after Senate confirmation. There will be no back pay."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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