WASHINGTON – The Senate confirmed three top military officers on Thursday — including the first female member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — as bipartisan frustration swirled around Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville for blocking hundreds more nominees.
Republican senators plan to hold a closed-door meeting next week to discuss the Alabama senator's blockade of senior military nominees, which he has been waging over a Pentagon abortion policy. Republicans have tried, unsuccessfully, for almost nine months to quietly persuade Tuberville to drop the holds on almost 400 nominees. Senior military officials have warned repeatedly that the situation threatens readiness and national security.
Anger over Tuberville's tactic spilled out in the Senate on Wednesday evening, when a group of Republican senators held the floor for more than four hours and called up 61 of the nominations for votes, praising each nominee for their military service and challenging the Alabama senator to explain himself. Tuberville showed no signs of letting up, quietly standing and objecting to each one even as his colleagues lashed out at him.
With Tuberville dug in, there are no easy answers on how to move forward.
Republicans said they will continue to try and negotiate with him, hoping to persuade Tuberville to hold up civilian nominees instead, and said that they will also try to force more votes. Democrats want stronger action and are seeking to move forward with a resolution that would allow batches of military nominees to be passed over Tuberville's objections. But that would need Republican support, and GOP senators are wary it could set a bad precedent that erodes the power of the minority in the Senate.
Whatever the next steps, Tuberville's Republican colleagues made clear that they are fed up.
“It's time to develop a new and smarter strategy,” said Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, who served in the Marine Corps and was one of the senators who criticized Tuberville’s blockade on the Senate floor.
The Senate on Thursday confirmed three of the nominees that Tuberville was holding up — Adm. Lisa Franchetti to lead the Navy, Gen. David Allvin to be chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force and Lt. Gen. Christopher Mahoney to serve as assistant commandant for the U.S. Marine Corps. Franchetti is the first woman to serve as a Pentagon service chief and hold a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday he was pleased that the Senate confirmed the three officers. But “we still have more than 370 superbly qualified leaders who have seen their nominations unnecessarily stalled," he said. “As we face a variety of urgent challenges, the most powerful fighting force in history must be at full-strength.”
Austin said the delay is hurting readiness and “unnecessarily weighed down our military families, who already give up so much to support those who serve.”
Because of Tuberville's holds and Senate procedure, confirmation of those three military officials took three days and six votes from start to finish — underscoring the difficulty majority Democrats have as they contemplate how to move hundreds of nominations. The Senate has traditionally approved large groups of military nominations by voice vote, but just one senator's objection can upend that process.
Republican Sens. Young and Joni Ernst of Iowa each suggested on Thursday that there would be an effort to try and convince Tuberville to hold up civilian nominations linked to the abortion policy instead of military officers who have nothing to do with it.
“Why are we taking hostages that can’t change the policy?” Ernst said.
But Tuberville said Wednesday there is “zero chance” he will drop the holds, which he first announced in February. Despite several high-level vacancies and the growing backlog, he has said he will continue to hold the nominees up unless the Pentagon ends — or puts to a vote in Congress — its new policy of paying for travel when a servicemember has to go out of state to get an abortion or other reproductive care. President Joe Biden’s administration instituted the policy after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to an abortion, and some states have limited or banned the procedure.
“I cannot simply sit idly by while the Biden administration injects politics in our military from the White House and spends taxpayers’ dollars on abortion,” Tuberville said Wednesday evening.
Confronting Tuberville publicly for the first time since he announced the holds, the Republican senators, led by Ernst and Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, read lengthy biographies, praised the nominees and lashed out at Tuberville as they called for vote after vote. They said they agree with the Alabama senator in opposing the abortion policy but questioned — as Democrats have for months — why he would hold up the highest ranks of the U.S. military.
As Wednesday night wore on, Sullivan, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, and Ernst, a former commander in the U.S. Army Reserve and Iowa Army National Guard, appeared increasingly frustrated. Sullivan called the blockade a “national security suicide mission.”
The GOP senators noted that they were bringing up the nominations “one by one” as Tuberville had once called for, and they asked why he wouldn’t allow them to go forward. Tuberville did not answer.
“I do not respect men who do not honor their word,” Ernst said of her GOP colleague toward the end of the evening.
The Senate voted to confirm the three top officers on Thursday after the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Eric Smith, was hospitalized Sunday after suffering a medical emergency at his official residence in Washington. Smith, who is listed in stable condition and is recovering, was confirmed to the top job last month, but he had been holding down two high-level posts for several months because of Tuberville’s holds.
Mahoney, who was confirmed as assistant commandant, could step into the acting commandant role as Smith recovers. He is a fighter pilot who has flown combat in Iraq and served as the deputy commander of Marine forces in the Pacific.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said after Mahoney’s confirmation that the holds have placed significant stress on the military’s officers and families. “We have seen tragic effects to that stress,” Hicks said. “And I think that’s been well communicated on Capitol Hill.”
When Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the vote this week on Mahoney’s nomination to be assistant commandant, he said Smith’s sudden medical emergency is “precisely the kind of avoidable emergency that Sen. Tuberville has provoked through his reckless holds.”
Also confirmed was Franchetti, who will lead the Navy. She is the second woman to be promoted to four-star admiral, and did multiple deployments, including as commander of a naval destroyer and two stints as aircraft carrier strike group commander. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., called Franchetti a “trailblazer.”
Several women have served as military service secretaries as political appointees, but never as their top uniformed officer. Adm. Linda L. Fagan is the commandant of the Coast Guard, but she is not a member of the Joint Staff.
Allvin is the vice chief of staff of the Air Force but has been serving as acting chief since the previous top Air Force officer, Gen. CQ Brown, became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 1. Allvin is a career air mobility pilot with more than 4,600 flight hours and key deployments in Afghanistan and Europe.