Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has laid out options to ensure key military jobs still get done as a standoff in the Senate over confirming senior military nominees shows no signs of ending any time soon.
In a memo dated Aug. 2, Austin recommended several ways to "mitigate the harms caused by the hold" that Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has placed on all nominees to become one-star generals and admirals and above.
"This unprecedented, across-the-board hold is having a cascading effect, increasingly hindering the normal operations of this department and undermining both our military readiness and our national security," Austin wrote in the memo, which was obtained by Military.com and first reported by CNN.
While Austin urged the Senate to "fulfill its responsibilities," he added that "for now, the department must make every effort to limit the damage caused by this hold, including the disruption that it is causing our military families."
Among the options Austin provided the military departments is that, in "extraordinary cases," two-star generals and admirals or below who are not normally in the line of succession can temporarily lead an organization if they're not the nominee to be the permanent leader.
Since late February, Tuberville has used a procedural tactic known as a hold to block confirmation of all general and flag officer nominees over his opposition to the Pentagon's recently implemented policy covering travel and leave for service members seeking abortions. He has vowed to maintain the hold until the Pentagon repeals the policy or Congress enshrines it in law.
While a hold cannot prevent a nominee from being confirmed, it means the Senate must take individual roll call votes on each rather than confirming them in batches in voice votes as it usually does for noncontroversial military nominees. And the Democratic Senate leadership has resisted scheduling individual roll call votes, both because of the time-consuming process and for fear of emboldening senators to use the same tactic as Tuberville in the future.
Even if Democrats were inclined to hold roll call votes, the Senate is on its summer recess, meaning the soonest they could do so is September.
Tuberville has pushed back on accusations that his hold harms the military, in part by arguing that no job will go undone.
"All of these jobs are being done. My holds are NOT affecting national security," Tuberville posted Monday on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, in response to a White House post criticizing him.
As the hold nears the six-month mark and ensnares about 300 nominees, it has been hitting increasingly prominent positions. On Friday, the Army chief of staff retired, leaving the service with an acting chief. The Marine Corps has also been without a Senate-confirmed commandant since July, making Friday the first time ever two U.S. military services have been led by acting chiefs at the same time.
By mid-August, the number of services without full-time chiefs will grow to three as the Navy’s chief of naval operations retires. And at the end of September, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must depart too.
Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have legally mandated term limits, meaning they have to step down even if their successors aren't in place.
Outside the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leaders can stay until their successors are confirmed, but military officials have said some officers have personal circumstances that make staying difficult -- something Austin alluded to in his memo.
"Incumbent heads of organizations may be asked to remain in place until their successor has been nominated, confirmed and appointed," he wrote. "Officers in the grades of O-9 and O-10 who are candidates to remain in place will be considered on a case-by-case basis for retention in their position, taking into account any hardship that may result from remaining in place."
Consistent with the normal line of succession, officers serving right now in deputy or vice positions are allowed to temporarily take over top jobs regardless of whether they have been nominated for that job, he added.
Three- and four-star officers can't leave their current positions if they're waiting to be confirmed for a new job, but they can perform the duties of another senior officer job in an acting capacity if they are in the line of succession, according to the memo.
"I understand that these steps will not end or offset the risk to our readiness or our global leadership position," Austin wrote. "Nor will they resolve the uncertainty and stress inflicted upon our general and flag officers and their families, or alleviate the worries rippling further down our ranks. Let me again urge all those affected to remain resilient."
-- Konstantin Toropin contributed to this report.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.