Editor’s note: This story was updated Thursday at 2:45pm to note the confirmation of Gen. Randy George as Army chief of staff, and Gen. Eric Smith, as commandant of the Marine Corps, and on Sept. 20 at 7:20pm EDT to note Gen. Charles Q. Brown as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It was corrected at 5:45pm EDT Wednesday to note that Brown would be the second Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not the first, which was Gen. Colin Powell.
Senate leaders filled three vacancies on the Joint Chiefs of Staff — including the chairman post — after a surprise breakthrough in the ongoing chamber confirmation fight that has snarled hundreds of military promotions for months.
Gen. Charles Q. Brown was confirmed as the new Joint Chiefs chairman by an 83-11 vote Wednesday night. Gen. Randy George, the nominee for Army chief of staff, and Gen. Eric Smith, the nominee for commandant of the Marine Corps, were confirmed on Thursday.
The news came as Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., prepared to force a chamber vote on Marine Corps nominee Smith, whose nomination has been held up since June by Tuberville as part of a blanket hold he has put on senior military promotions. Tuberville has been pushing for votes on individual nominees, but Democratic leaders had balked at his demand.
Schumer on Wednesday angrily blasted Tuberville’s moves as partisan games but acknowledged that some confirmations needed to move ahead as soon as possible to keep the ongoing political fight from turning into a national security threat.
“Due to the extraordinary circumstances of Sen. Tuberville’s reckless decisions, Democrats will take action,” he said. “It’s not the path a vast majority of senators on either side of the aisle want to go down, but Sen. Tuberville is forcing us to face his obstruction head-on.”
Schumer indicated he would oppose similar individual or small-group votes of defense nominees in the future. Ahead of Wednesday’s votes, Tuberville said he was pleased with the outcome.
“I’m OK with it,” Tuberville said. “I’ve been saying that for months. Today we called them out on that, and they blinked.”
Tuberville’s objections center on changes announced last fall to the Defense Department’s abortion access policy, which allows travel stipends and leave time to service members forced to travel across state lines to access abortion services.
The White House and congressional Democrats have called the move critical health care for service members. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has argued the policy allows the military “to recruit, retain, and maintain the readiness of a highly qualified force.”
But Republicans have largely decried it as an illegal work-around of state and federal laws. House GOP lawmakers have included plans to roll back the military abortion policy in a series of pending defense budget bills.
Tuberville’s holds have snarled the typically non-controversial military promotions process. Wednesday’s deal filled in three key leadership positions but still leaves the fate of nearly 300 others in doubt.
The new Joint Chiefs
Currently, the Army, Navy and Marine Corps are without confirmed service chiefs because of Tuberville’s holds. In each case, the second-in-command leaders for the services are taking on the role of acting leader.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, is set to retire at the end of the month. Brown is President Joe Biden’s choice to replace Milley as the top uniformed officer in the military, and is the second Black officer to hold the post.
The prospect of leaving the most senior uniformed military post open for any stretch of time has caused significant concern within the Pentagon and White House, as well as around Capitol Hill.
The Marine Corps was the first military service to face a senior leadership vacancy, following the legally required departure of Gen. David Berger in July.
Smith, officially the assistant Marine commandant until Thursday, took on Berger’s responsibilities upon his predecessor’s retirement. In his acting role, he could not issue the commandant’s long-term planning guidance, and he doesn’t have a deputy to help him juggle the work of leading the Marine Corps and serving on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Smith has refrained from criticizing Tuberville directly, in keeping with the norm that uniformed military leaders stay out of political fights. But he warned at his confirmation hearing in June that the hold on nominations could hamper military readiness. And he said in September that he fears his “not sustainable” lack of sleep will make it hard for him to make good decisions, Marine Corps Times reported Monday.
In August, the Army became the second military service to have no Senate-confirmed leader at the top. Gen. Randy George, the Army’s vice chief of staff, also served as the Army’s acting leader, performing a double duty akin to Smith’s.
Brown previously served as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and his promotion leaves that post vacant now.
Nominees still waiting
Among the remaining pending nominees are Adm. Lisa Franchetti, Biden’s pick to serve as the top Navy officer, and Gen. David Allvin, nominated to be the top Air Force leader. Those two had confirmation hearings last week and are expected to have their files forwarded to the full Senate in the next few weeks, where they will then face Tuberville’s opposition.
Even with Smith now taking over the most senior Marine Corps post, he still lacks a top deputy, because Tuberville’s remaining holds include Lt. Gen. Christopher Mahoney’s nomination to be assistant commandant.
The same is true of George, who won’t get the assistance of Army Lt. Gen. James Mingus, the vice chief nominee, unless the Senate confirms him sometime in the near future.
Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the moves by the Senate were “good for the United States Marines, certainly good for the United States Army and good for the Joint Staff, but it ain’t good enough for US national security. These holds need to be lifted, all of them.”
On Tuesday, officials from VoteVets – which has ties to the Democratic party – set up posters with the names and faces of all the blocked nominees on the grounds outside the Capitol. Tuberville said he was aware of the display but unmoved by it.
Earlier in the day, Senate Democrats blasted Tuberville for his continued obstinance and criticized his Republican colleagues for not doing more to end the blockade.
“The motto of the United States Marines Corps is not ‘help out the top brass and leave everyone else behind,’” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “Sen. Tuberville evidently does not understand that.”
Tuberville said he has no plans to change his stance on nominees now to speed up filling the remaining vacancies.
“They finally figured out I won’t want to give in, and I’m still not,” he told reporters. “Let’s do these votes one at a time and or change the (abortion) policy back.”
But Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he was confident that Wednesday’s breakthrough will produce more confirmation agreements in coming days.
“We’re going to keep on the pressure, and I think you’re going to see more on this next week,” he said.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.