Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) unprecedented hold on military promotions has left the Marine Corps without a confirmed leader for the first time in 164 years, drawing outrage from Democrats who say his actions are undermining national security.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger officially retired on Monday, leaving Assistant Commandant Gen. Eric Smith as the acting commandant and leader of the military branch until he is confirmed in the Senate.
Democrats tried to confirm Smith via a unanimous consent request on Monday, but Tuberville blocked the move in protest of a new Pentagon policy that provides paid leave and reimbursement costs for travel for servicemembers who cross state lines to get an abortion. The policy was enacted after the Supreme Court struck down federal abortion rights and overturned Roe v. Wade.
The Alabama Republican’s hold pertains to over 250 of the Pentagon’s general and flag officers. In order to approve each promotion, Democrats would need to schedule several votes on the Senate floor, eating up valuable floor time. It would likely take months to process them all — time the Senate simply doesn’t have if it wants to pass appropriations bills and avert a government shutdown this year.
“If the Democrats are so worried about Gen. Smith in an acting position, then let’s vote,” Tuberville said Monday after blocking the request, making it clear he would support Smith if his confirmation came up for a vote.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused Tuberville of using military officers and their families waiting for promotions as “pawns” because the uncertainty in the Senate has put them in limbo.
“Their families cannot move to their new homes. Their children cannot get ready for a new school. Their spouses cannot take new jobs. This is not a game — these are real lives that have been upended,” Reed said.
John Kirby, a White House spokesperson for national security issues, also criticized Tuberville over his hold on Smith’s confirmation on Tuesday.
“When you’re in an acting capacity, while you can do many of the things that a person who is confirmed can do, some of your authorities are limited,” Kirby said in an interview with MSNBC. “Some of your ability to maneuver money around and program things are going to be affected by the fact that you’re not Senate confirmed.”
Republicans and Democrats have suggested alternate ways for Tuberville to exhibit his position on the issue, including a vote on an amendment to the annual defense bill, but he says he will only lift the holds on two conditions: the policy is formalized in law in a standalone vote on the floor or dropped entirely.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters last month he doesn’t support holding up military promotions as leverage. However, most of Tuberville’s GOP colleagues are sticking by him, and he told reporters he has felt no pressure from leadership to change course.
Democrats could try and change the Senate rules to push through the military promotions over Tuberville’s hold — something Republicans did multiple times when they were in the majority — but doing so would require 50 votes.
“There is not a consensus for doing that at this point in time — for anything,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the No. 3 Senate Democrat, told HuffPost.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) suggested on Monday that Democrats are relishing the fight over military promotions with Tuberville, who has emerged as a foil for Democratic senators as well as President Joe Biden, who recently called him out for touting infrastructure funding he voted against.
“They like this posture,” Cornyn said, noting that Democrats could schedule a vote on any promotion.
But Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who also serves on the Armed Services Committee, pointed the finger at Tuberville’s fellow GOP colleagues for not doing more to get the promotions approved.
“You can’t turn this around into ‘This is a problem the Democrats can solve,’” Warren said. “Under the Senate rules, as they exist right now, Sen. Tuberville can continue to block these nominees indefinitely. That’s where the battle line has to be drawn. It’s over whether one member can put our entire national security at risk. Sen. Tuberville is doing that, and right now he is doing it with the tacit approval of his fellow Republicans.”