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Senate Democrats work to stop Tuberville's blockade on military promotion

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters about support for Israel following a closed-door caucus meeting, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters about support for Israel following a closed-door caucus meeting, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senate Democrats are trying a new workaround to confirm hundreds of military officers blocked by Senator Tommy Tuberville, ten months after the Alabama Republican first said he would object to the nominations over a Pentagon abortion policy.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday that the Senate will consider a resolution in the near future that would allow the quick confirmation of the nearly 400 officers up for promotion or nominated for another senior job. The Senate is currently at a stalemate on the nominations because Tuberville is objecting to the routine process of confirming the nominations all at once by unanimous consent, and voting on them individually could monopolize weeks or months of the Senate's time.

Schumer separately moved to hold votes as soon as this week on three top Pentagon officers affected by the holds — Adm. Lisa Franchetti to be the chief of naval operations, Gen. David Allvin to be chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force and Lieutenant General Christopher Mahoney to serve as assistant commandant for the U.S. Marine Corps.

The Senate maneuvers come amid a new war in Israel and as members of both parties are growing increasingly frustrated with Tuberville's holds. Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, had gathered enough signatures to force a vote on Franchetti and Allvin and spoke out in frustration about the issue at the weekly GOP lunch on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with Sullivan's comments who requested anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said after the lunch that the holds are "a bad idea" and said he'd tried to convince the Alabama Republican to express his opposition some other way.

The new efforts to get around Tuberville come after an announcement by the Marine Corps that Gen. Eric Smith, the commandant, has been hospitalized. Smith was confirmed to the top job last month, but had been holding down two high-level posts — commandant and assistant commandant — for several months because Mahoney's nomination for the number two job has been held up by Tuberville. Smith himself was blunt about the demands of serving as both assistant commandant and acting commandant for months in the wake of General David Berger's retirement after four years as the top Marine.

In public remarks in early September, Smith described his grueling schedule as he juggled the strategic and oversight responsibilities of commandant and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the personnel and management duties of the No. 2 job. "It is not sustainable," Smith said. "What doesn't stop is the clock. The adversary doesn't take a pause."

With Smith hospitalized and no confirmed assistant commandant, Lieutenant General Karsten Heckl is performing the duties of commandant. Heckl, who is the deputy commandant for combat development, can't serve as an "acting commandant" because he is not currently in a Senate-confirmed position. As a result, he doesn't have all of the power or authority that a confirmed officer would have.

Schumer said Smith's sudden medical emergency is "precisely the kind of avoidable emergency that Senator Tuberville has provoked though his reckless holds."

Tuberville has shown no signs of lifting the blockade since he first announced it in February. Despite several high-level vacancies, he has said he will continue to hold up the other nominations unless the Pentagon ends its policy of paying for travel when a service member has to go out of state to get an abortion or other reproductive care. The Biden administration instituted the policy after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to an abortion and some states have limited or banned the procedure.

The Alabama senator has challenged Schumer to put each individual nomination on the floor, but Democrats have said that could take months to finish and delay other Senate priorities.

Democrats have also been hoping to force Tuberville's hand as the number of stalled nominations has grown. "There's an old saying in the military, leave no one behind," Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed said in July.

But that strategy has become more difficult as months have passed, and as Tuberville has dug in.

"Every day that Senator Tuberville continues his blanket holds our military preparedness is degraded," Schumer said.

A host of military officers have spoken out about the damage of the delays for service members. While Tuberville's holds are focused on all general and flag officers, they carry career impacts on the military's younger rising officers. Until each general or admiral is confirmed, it blocks an opportunity for a more junior officer to rise.

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