Democrats Circumvent Tuberville as Senate Moves to Finally Confirm Leaders of Army, Marine Corps, Joint Chiefs

September 21, 2023
Sen. Tommy Tuberville arrives for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing

The Marine Corps, Army and Joint Chiefs of Staff are poised to get full-time leaders as a months-long stalemate in the Senate centering on the Pentagon’s abortion policy begins to soften.

The Senate on Wednesday began a series of votes that could end in the confirmations of Gen. Charles “C.Q.” Brown to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Eric Smith to be commandant of the Marines, and Gen. Randy George to be chief of staff of the Army.

The Senate overwhelmingly voted to advance Brown in a procedural vote in the afternoon and is scheduled to confirm him later in the evening. Confirmation of George and Smith is expected Thursday.

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The votes circumvent a blockade Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has maintained for more than six months on all general and admiral promotions because of his opposition to the Pentagon’s policy of providing travel expenses and leave for troops seeking abortions. Still, Wednesday’s action does not end the larger fight over more than 300 military promotions that for now remain in limbo.

Democrats had insisted it would set a bad precedent to hold roll call votes on a few top-ranking officers to get around Tuberville’s blockade. Apolitical military nominations are typically confirmed in batches by voice votes. But after Tuberville announced he was planning to use a rare procedural move to overcome his own hold on Smith’s nomination, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced he would move forward with confirming the three chiefs.

“It seems that Sen. Tuberville is becoming more and more desperate to get out of the box he has put himself in,” Schumer said on the Senate floor in announcing the plan to confirm Brown, Smith and George.

“These men should have already been confirmed,” Schumer added. “The Senate will overwhelmingly vote to confirm them, and these three honorable men will finally be able to assume their positions. And the abortion policy that Sen. Tuberville abhors will remain in place. Sen. Tuberville will have accomplished nothing.”

Tuberville, though, saw Wednesday’s votes as a victory for him, saying it proved what he’s been arguing for months — that Democrats could vote on the nominees he’s been blocking at any time.

Schumer “knew he was wrong, finally,” said Tuberville, who voted against advancing Brown. “We were going to do it if he didn’t, so we kind of called his hand.”

Smith and George, as the respective current vice chiefs for the Marine Corps and Army, have been acting as their service’s chiefs since their predecessors were legally required to step down over the summer.

The current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, is legally required to step down next week. If Brown wasn’t confirmed before then, vice chairman Adm. Christopher Grady was expected to act as chairman.

While acting chiefs can keep the military running day-to-day, defense officials have argued they are not as effective as Senate-confirmed chiefs since they lack the authority for broad strategic decisions and have to juggle their full-time job with their acting job.

The Navy is also without a Senate-confirmed chief right now. But the Senate Armed Services Committee has not yet advanced the nominee, Adm. Lisa Franchetti, to be the new chief, making her ineligible to be part of Wednesday’s development. Similarly, the committee has not yet advanced Brown’s replacement to be Air Force chief of staff, Gen. David Allvin.

After Schumer’s announcement, the Pentagon thanked him for moving forward with three nominees.

“However, Sen. Tuberville’s hold still impacts over 300 nominees and remains unnecessary at a critical moment for our national security,” a senior Pentagon official added in an emailed statement. “We want the Senate to approve all of our nominees. How the Senate decides to do that is up to them.”

Representatives for the nominated chiefs of the Army and Marine Corps declined to comment when asked about the progress in the Senate. The Air Force and Joint Chiefs did not respond to’s request for comment.

Democrats sidestepped questions Wednesday afternoon on their plans for the remaining nominees caught in the hold, but left open the possibility they could hold more individual roll call votes.

“I think we have to refocus on getting everyone done,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I. “The damage that is being done is at the highest level, but it’s going through the entire system. We don’t have fleet commanders. We don’t have critical people.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who chairs the committee’s personnel subpanel, said she and Reed met with Schumer on Tuesday to discuss the path forward, but would not elaborate on their plans, saying only that Wednesday’s votes were “an important step.”

The votes happened after Tuberville said he planned to file what’s known as a cloture petition on Smith, which would have forced the Senate to take at least a procedural vote on that nomination. Typically, filing cloture — or a motion to end debate on a nominee or bill — is left to the majority leader, but any one senator can do it if they get enough signatures on a petition, which Tuberville did for Smith.

While Tuberville said he will maintain his hold on the more than 300 officers still awaiting confirmation, he also raised the possibility of attempting more cloture petitions that could result in individual Senate votes on the confirmations.

“We’ll look at it after this week,” Tuberville said of the possibility, adding that the Senate could vote on a “few a week” until all the nominees are confirmed. Democrats estimate it would take more than 100 days of voting on nothing but the nominees for eight hours a day to confirm all 300-plus officers.

— Drew Lawrence contributed to this story.

— Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

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