Army, Navy Will Be Latest Services Without Chiefs as Senator Maintains Block on Confirmations

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July 29, 2023
Sen. Tommy Tuberville takes his earpiece out

The Army and Navy are set to join the Marine Corps in being without a full-time top officer as the Senate leaves for a five-week break without finding a way to end Republican Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s blockade on general and admiral promotions.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville is set to retire next week, while Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday will depart in mid-August.

The Senate began its summer recess Thursday night without confirming replacements for either officer and is not scheduled to return until Sept. 5, ensuring the Army and Navy will join the growing cadre of military services led by acting chiefs.

The rare scenario is playing out because Tuberville is using a procedural tactic known as a hold to prevent quick confirmations for all general and flag officer nominees to try to force the Pentagon to reverse its recently implemented policy covering travel and leave for troops who need to get abortions.

Tuberville first placed the hold in late February, and it has since ensnared 273 nominees. And as the summer proceeds, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are increasingly feeling the pinch.

Already, the commandant of the Marine Corps retired earlier this month without his replacement being confirmed, leaving the service with an acting commandant for the first time in 164 years. Now, the Army and Navy face the same fate, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will leave at the end of September.

As the effects of Tuberville’s hold mount, congressional Democrats and the Biden administration have issued increasingly harsh rebukes.

At a speech Thursday night at a civil rights symposium, President Joe Biden described a “growing cascade of damage and disruption” caused by Tuberville’s hold.

“Military families who have already sacrificed so much, unsure of where and when they change stations, unable to get housing or start their kids in the new school because they’re not there yet,” Biden said. “Military spouses forced to take critical career decisions, not knowing where or if they can apply for a new job.”

Tuberville, though, has shown no signs of backing down, demanding that either the Pentagon reverse the abortion travel policy or Congress enshrine it in law. In a “document that separates myths from facts” sent to reporters ahead of Biden’s speech Thursday, Tuberville’s office insisted the hold is “well within his rights as a senator” and “does not affect readiness, unlike the Pentagon’s woke policies.”

Tuberville also sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday reiterating that he is “strongly opposed to this immoral policy, and believe[s] its development and implementation run afoul of legal authority granted to the executive branch.”

Austin announced the policy after a Supreme Court ruling last year allowed states to ban abortion, prompting concerns that female service members who do not get to choose where they are stationed would lose access to reproductive health care. The department maintains the policy does not violate legal restrictions against the Pentagon paying for abortions because the department is not covering the procedure itself.

Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have legally mandated four-year terms, meaning they have to step down even if their successors aren’t in place.

As happened with the Marines and as prescribed by law, the vice chiefs of the Army and Navy will take over as acting chiefs. In the Army, that’s Gen. Randy George, and in the Navy, it’s Adm. Lisa Franchetti.

Franchetti will be the Navy’s first acting chief since 1996 when Adm. Michael Boorda died in office, according to the Navy. Army officials were unsure when its last acting chief of staff was, but an Army history website lists at least one acting chief in 1972.

Both George and Franchetti are also the nominees to become the next Army chief of staff and chief of naval operations, respectively.

The White House named Franchetti, who would be the first female Navy chief and first woman on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as Biden’s pick only last week, meaning it would have been a heavy lift for the Senate to confirm her before its August recess even without Tuberville’s hold.

But the effects of acting chiefs manifest in ways both small and large. The Marine commandant portrait in the Pentagon has been replaced with a black rectangle, and the official social media site X, previously known as Twitter, account has gone silent since Gen. David Berger retired as commandant.

More urgently, acting chiefs are limited in their ability to issue sweeping strategic guidance on the future of their force and don’t command the authority abroad that Senate-confirmed leaders do. George and Franchetti will also need to be careful not to take steps that appear to presume they’ll be confirmed.

Since Tuberville’s hold only prevents the Senate from using an expedited process for confirmation, Senate Democrats could schedule individual roll call votes on each nominee when they return from break, and some senators have suggested doing so for at least the most important officers, such as the Joint Chiefs.

But Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., appeared Thursday to downplay the possibility he will schedule roll call votes on individual officers, again calling on Republicans to pressure Tuberville to relent.

“I think in August pressure is going to mount on Tuberville,” Schumer said at a news conference.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., suggested Republican leadership should kick Tuberville off the Senate Armed Services Committee over the hold.

“If Harry Reid were alive and the leader, he would do that, plus extract some fingernails from me if I were trying something like this,” Kaine told reporters Friday, referring to the former Senate Democratic leader who died in 2021. “The real end game on this is the Republican leadership is going to have to get him to back off of this, and we just got to keep the pressure on until they do.”

Konstantin Toropin and Steve Beynon contributed to this report.

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

 

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