WASHINGTON ― Pentagon leaders fear the chance of advancing a slate of critical department nominations this year is dwindling amid ongoing opposition on Capitol Hill, and they’re warning that delays could cause significant hardship for military operations in the months to come.
With only one week of scheduled work left for the Senate this year, 10 senior defense nominations await votes from the chamber. Several have been pending for months. Lester Martinez-Lopez, President Joe Biden’s pick to be assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, has been awaiting confirmation since January.
The end of a congressional session typically brings with it a flurry of confirmations of noncontroversial candidates. But in recent days, several Republican senators have vowed to block some or all Defense Department nominations over separate disagreements with the Biden administration, dimming the prospect for completing the work this month.
And since a new session of Congress begins next month, any nominees who aren’t confirmed by the end of this year will have to refile paperwork and restart the confirmation process, a situation that potentially leaves them waiting for additional months.
“These holds are hamstringing an organization at a time when we have a pacing challenge in China, an acute threat from Russia,” a senior defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of negotiations between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. “These are the people who would serve as connective tissue between the president, the White House, the secretary and the deputy, the uniformed military, and career bureaucracy — and that’s a really important role.
“At a time when Congress is telling us to run faster, compete with China, focus more on Taiwan, focus more on acquisitions, do a better job recruiting, they’re also saying: ‘And oh, by the way, do it without 10 highly qualified civilian nominees.’ ”
Pentagon planners say that without service-level, workforce-focused personnel in place like Franklin Parker, the pick to be assistant secretary of Navy manpower and reserve affairs, and Agnes Schaefer, nominated to the same role for the Army, the services are less equipped to tackle difficult issues like sexual assault and recruiting shortfalls.
“These are individuals who I think would be well placed to inspire more people to consider service. They will be focused on the best practices in recruiting and retention. And again, they’re not in their seats,” the defense official said.
Other nominees on hold are Radha Plumb, Biden’s pick for deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, and Laura Taylor-Kale, the pick for assistant secretary of defense for industrial base policy.
Pentagon officials argue that both would be pivotal to ramping up the defense-industrial base and military aid to Ukraine, which are bipartisan priorities.
Senate Democratic leaders could force votes on each nominee in the coming days. But that’s seen as unlikely, given the time-consuming nature of passing through parliamentary hurdles for each one, a process that can take several days.
The chamber’s legislative schedule is already bogged down by passage of the annual defense authorization bill, a Ukraine spending package and a potential full-year appropriations deal, items that leaders hope to clear by Dec. 16. If there’s any spare time for nominees, Democratic leaders appear to be using it to confirm judges.
Still, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., and fellow Democrats plan next week to call up the Pentagon nominees individually on the chamber floor in hopes of catching the Republicans off guard, or at least forcing them to come to the floor to object, according to a Senate Democratic aide.
But the list of objectors is long.
Earlier this week, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., announced plans to hold all pending defense nominations because of unanswered questions regarding military policies on abortion access for troops.
Staffers received a briefing from the acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs on Thursday. Tuberville announced Friday he had dropped his holds but may reinstate the blocks in coming days over what he sees as an illegal policy to help pregnant troops obtain abortions.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., announced plans to hold several nominees over the Pentagon’s mandate that all troops get vaccinated against COVID-19.
A mandate repeal is expected to pass by the end of the week as part of the defense authorization bill, but Lankford said he would maintain the hold because of “major concerns over DoD’s unwillingness to grant religious accommodations” for vaccine refusers.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has had a blanket hold on DoD and State Department nominations for months over concerns about how the administration handled the 2021 withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, is holding Plumb and Taylor-Kale over concerns about a mine project in Alaska that’s subject to federal litigation.
“No one really disputes the qualifications of these nominees,” the senior defense official said. “In some cases, these people have put their careers on hold, in some cases for a year now.
“I worry about the message that it sends to public servants from the Democratic or Republican [parties] who are thinking about wanting to serve in a future administration.”
Some of the roles have career civilians filling in, but they’re not empowered to set certain policy priorities, which bogs down the Pentagon’s work.
“No matter what the institution wants that acting individual to do, there are both legal and bureaucratic constraints, and that slows things down,” said David Berteau, the chief executive of the Professional Services Council, a defense industry group.
Berteau says a slowdown in procurement lead times over recent years can partly be attributed to unfilled vacancies for Senate-confirmed personnel.
Another potential effect, according to Berteau, is that when the administration hits its midpoint and some appointees retire, Biden will have a narrower bench of confirmed officials to draw from for replacements.
Should Biden re-nominate the appointees, and should they then resubmit their disclosure paperwork, they would have to undergo new FBI screenings. Then, leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee would have to decide whether to hold new confirmation hearings. It’s unclear how long that process might take.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other Pentagon officials have been pressing both Republican senators and lead Democrats over the delays since lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill last month, following their extended break before the midterm elections.
“I would say that our goal is to get these 10 nominees confirmed, and we are using an all-of-the-above strategy,” the senior defense official said. “We’re just going to assess where we’re at day by day, challenge by challenge, and continue to address individual holds, individual issues.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.
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.