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Senate confirms two more military leaders despite Tuberville blockade

The Senate voted Thursday to make Gen. Randy A. George the next Army chief of staff and Gen. Eric M. Smith the next commandant of the Marine Corps, confirming two more senior military officers whose promotions had been stalled by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) amid a prolonged dispute over a Pentagon abortion policy.

With the votes to allow George and Smith to officially step into their new positions, the Senate has approved three of President Biden’s military nominees since Wednesday despite Tuberville’s virtual blockade. But more than 300 other senior officers remain ensnared in Tuberville’s months-long hold on promotions with no clear path to immediate advancement in most cases.

Typically, senior officer promotions are approved in blocs by the Senate through unanimous consent to avoid lengthy floor debates and the politicization of votes around military commanders. But Tuberville has used Senate rules to block swift approval of such promotions.

He doubled down on his promise Wednesday night to continue with the tactic after Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) chose to peel away three senior military nominations for individual votes under the chamber’s cloture rules.

George, 58, has served as vice chief of staff of the Army since August 2022, and as the service’s acting chief since last month, when Gen. James McConville stepped down. George previously served as a senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He also has commanded soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Smith, 58, has served as the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps since October 2021, and as the service’s acting administrator since July, when Gen. David Berger stepped down as commandant to retire. Smith previously commanded U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pacific. During the Obama administration, he also served as a senior military assistant to then-Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, a position that he has said gave him a better appreciation for how different parts of the Pentagon collaborate and at times compete for resources.

On Wednesday night, the Senate confirmed Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after Schumer teed up an individual vote on his nomination as well. Schumer’s move helped the Senate avoid the embarrassing prospect of a temporary administrator filling the Pentagon’s most prestigious post.

Ahead of the vote on George, Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said that, with Brown and George confirmed, Tuberville’s holds are affecting 317 nominations and 313 senior officers as of Thursday. Additional names will be added to the list as the year goes on, with about three-quarters of the Defense Department’s 852 generals and admirals affected by year’s end, Singh said.

It remains unclear how many more nominees Schumer might seek to bring to the floor individually.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a Thursday interview that he anticipates Senate leadership will hold similar individual votes for each of the remaining nominations for Joint Chiefs of Staff jobs as they come up.

In addition to the votes for Brown, George and Smith, that process in the coming days is expected to include Adm. Lisa Franchetti and Gen. David Allvin, Biden’s nominees to lead the Navy and Air Force, respectively. If confirmed, Franchetti would be the first woman on the Joint Chiefs. Biden previously selected Adm. Linda Fagan to lead the Coast Guard, a military service in the Department of Homeland Security.

Blumenthal said there is no consensus among Democrats on how to proceed after that.

“My very strong personal view is that we need to change the rules, or suspend them, because these nominations have been approved by overwhelming, lopsided majorities, and there is no dispute about the qualifications of the individuals,” he said.

Changing the rules, he said, would take either 60 votes or a two-thirds majority, depending on how the process is carried out.

“I personally think it’s an imperative, and inevitable,” Blumenthal said.

While filling the Joint Chiefs jobs is important, he said, the other 300-plus open jobs cannot be overlooked. The dilemma, Blumenthal said, is that continuing to vote on other nominations one-by-one may be seen as yielding to Tuberville.

Tuberville imposed his hold on all senior military nominations in February, staging a dramatic protest of the financial assistance rendered to service members and their dependents who must leave the state where they are stationed to obtain an abortion. The Biden administration established the travel-reimbursement policy after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, as Republican-led states began to ban or severely restrict access to reproductive health care.

Ahead of Schumer’s decision to move ahead on the Brown, George and Smith nominations, Tuberville planned a procedural move that could have led to a vote on Smith’s nomination to become the Marine Corps commandant.

That plan was rendered moot after Schumer’s initiative. Schumer said Tuberville should not get to control which of the nominees he is holding up are allowed to move forward.

After Wednesday’s votes, some Senate Republicans appeared to celebrate Tuberville’s maneuvers, which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not embraced.

“You have to be willing to take a stand,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said in a Thursday interview with conservative host Hugh Hewitt. “The Senate can at some point override you, and that’s what’s happened recently, but the truth is you only have certain weapons in your arsenal.”

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said Schumer “proved he could have moved these military promotions months ago.” She accused him of holding service members “hostage.”

However, Schumer and other Democrats had long argued that to deviate from the Senate’s decades-old procedure of approving noncontroversial military nominations in large batches would only encourage other lawmakers to attempt a similar gambit.

In addition, an independent assessment by the Congressional Research Service last month found that working on all frozen nominations one by one would take months, even if the Senate focused on virtually nothing else.

The Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, told reporters Thursday that Defense Department leadership is eager to see Tuberville’s remaining holds lifted and the remaining nominees confirmed.

He stopped short, however, of suggesting how lawmakers ought to proceed in addressing the larger backlog once the military’s senior-most assignments get approved.

“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,” Ryder said. “And we owe it to our team, and to the coach, to put all of our other players on the field and enable them to win the game. … But again, in terms of any type of Senate actions, it would be inappropriate for me to tell Congress how to do it and when to do it.”

Alexandra Heal contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this article misstated that, if confirmed as the next chief of naval operations, Adm. Lisa Franchetti would become the first woman to lead a branch of the military. She would be the first woman on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Adm. Linda Fagan since last year has led the Coast Guard, a military service within the Department of Homeland Security. This article has been corrected.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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