Senate confirms Joint Chiefs chair in respite from Tuberville blockade

September 22, 2023

On Wednesday, September 20, the U.S. Senate confirmed Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—with Democrats briefly relenting in their ongoing feud with Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Alabama) to push through President Joe Biden’s nominee for the military’s top job, reports The Washington Post.

The 83-11 vote avoids what had been the embarrassing prospect of a temporary administrator filling the Pentagon’s most prestigious post. Yet it leaves about 300 other senior officers ensnared in Tuberville’s months-long hold on military promotions with no clear path to advancement; as the underlying political standoff over the Defense Department’s abortion policy exhibits no signs of abating.

Brown, who becomes only the second African American, after Gen. Colin Powell, to ascend to the chairman’s post, was confirmed after Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-New York) chose to peel away the nomination for an individual vote. Senior officer promotions are typically approved by the Senate through unanimous consent to avoid lengthy floor debates and the politicization of votes around military commanders.

Schumer also moved forward with what could be individual confirmation votes on Marine Corps Gen. Eric M. Smith and Army Gen. Randy George to lead their respective services, appearing to leave open the possibility that the Senate will move to install new heads of the Navy and Air Force once their nominations clear scrutiny from the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The 11 senators voting against Brown were all Republicans: Mike Braun (Ind.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Missouri), Mike Lee (Utah), Roger Marshall (Kansas), Eric Schmitt (Missouri), J.D. Vance (Ohio), Ron Johnson (Wisconsin), Cynthia M. Lummis (Wyoming), Marco Rubio (Florida), and Tuberville.

A spokesperson for Brown said the general had no immediate comment.

In a statement congratulating Brown, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called him “a tremendous leader” and said “it is well past time” to confirm the other military nominees. “The brave men and women of the U.S. military deserve to be led by highly-qualified general and flag officers at this critical moment for our national security,” he added.

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.

Until Wednesday, Democrats had refused to vote on the nominations individually, as Tuberville suggested they should. Schumer and other Democrats had long argued that to deviate from the Senate’s standard procedure of approving noncontroversial military nominations in large batches would serve only to encourage other lawmakers with political grievances to attempt a similar gambit—but they reversed course with Brown’s soon-to-be predecessor, Gen. Mark A. Milley, approaching his September 30 legal deadline to step down from the chairman’s post.

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.

After Brown’s confirmation vote, the Senate late Wednesday approved a motion to advance George’s nomination to lead the Army. A final confirmation vote was expected sometime on Thursday. Efforts to advance Smith’s nomination to take over the Marines were scheduled to take place on Thursday.

In a statement attacking Tuberville as “the sole cause of this crisis,” Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that Democrats “have no problem with voting on the most senior military officers” instead of the usual process of unanimous consent.

“We are disturbed, however, by Republicans’ interest in voting exclusively on a few select officers while hundreds of other officers and their families are punished,” he added. “Democrats pursued every opportunity we could before taking this route, and I hope Republicans understand the terrible message they are sending to the force.”

Earlier Wednesday, after Schumer threatened to keep lawmakers in the Senate over the weekend, they voted overwhelmingly — 89-8 — to advance Brown’s nomination for a final vote. Tuberville voted against doing so.

Tuberville did not object to the votes. But moments after the Senate moved to advance Brown’s nomination for final consideration, the freshman senator cast blame on Democrats for the state of play and vowed to continue his hold on the other military nominations unless the Pentagon changes its abortion policy.

He argued that Schumer “could have confirmed these nominees a long, long time ago” if he had agreed to approve each nomination individually.

“We could have been confirming one or two a week for the last 200 days,” Tuberville said—alleging that Democrats simply did not want to work. “Senators are perfectly capable of voting. Voting is our job.”

Shortly thereafter, Tuberville reiterated his long-standing conditions for relenting.

“If the Pentagon lifts the policy, then I will lift the hold. It’s as easy as that,” he said.

Tuberville’s words on the Senate floor Wednesday echoed his previous promise to hold up nominations until Austin “rescinds or suspends” the policy. In February, when he first mounted his opposition, Tuberville argued that his position is about “not forcing the taxpayers of this country to fund abortion.”

But on the Senate floor Wednesday, Schumer said that Tuberville’s position is forcing the Senate to move through these first three key military key positions—arguing that any further delays could pose a risk to national security.

Schumer said that, for more than six months, Tuberville has continued his “brazen, reckless hold of hundreds of routine, nonpolitical promotions of senior military officers.”

“Due to the extraordinary circumstances of Senator Tuberville’s reckless decisions, Democrats will take action,” Schumer said. “Democrats have said all along that these promotions should move forward together, as these nominations have for decades in the past. They should have happened a long time ago. They should have happened the way these promotions have been done in the Senate until Senator Tuberville arrived.”

Republican leadership also has opposed Tuberville’s actions, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) saying in May that he doesn’t “support putting a hold on military nominations.”

Research contact: @washingtonpost