Tuberville hold scrambles Marines’ plans for top officer’s retirement

Rather than passing the torch to a new commandant, Gen. Eric Smith, President Joe Biden’s nominee to replace Berger, will instead lead the Corps on a temporary basis. The Marine Corps did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the service’s plans.

The open spot at the top of the Marine Corps would be the most senior example of what the Pentagon warns will be a cascading series of vacancies in the military services and major commands due to a blockade of top officers by Sen. Tommy Tuberville.

The Alabama Republican put a blanket hold on nominees this spring over the Pentagon’s new policy of reimbursing troops and their family members if they travel to receive an abortion. Democrats, top Pentagon officials and even some Republicans have criticized the move, warning that senior positions could go unfilled if the dispute drags on, including several looming Joint Chiefs vacancies.

Smith appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. But Tuberville’s hold means Smith can’t be confirmed before Berger leaves.

During the hearing, Smith expressed concern about the impact of Tuberville’s hold on military readiness.

“It certainly compromises our ability to be most ready,” Smith said, noting that the effect will be felt across the ranks of the service, from the leadership of Marine units to the promotions of young lieutenant colonels.

Tuberville’s move comes during a consequential period for the Joint Chiefs, as more than half of the members are slated to end their four-year terms this year. Berger will lead the way when he retires next month, and Smith, currently the service’s No. 2 officer, will take over for Berger under Title 10, which lays out the line of succession for the armed forces.

Smith, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, would retain his current title while performing the role of commandant. But he will need to be careful not to presume confirmation, for example by issuing the commandant’s “planning guidance,” a document put forth by every new commandant, before he is confirmed.

If Tuberville’s hold isn’t unresolved, the backlog could soon cause delays for the top picks to lead the Navy, Air Force and Army, along with the Joint Chiefs chair.

Biden has already nominated Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown to replace Gen. Mark Milley as Joint Chiefs chair. He has also tapped Gen. Randy George to take over as Army chief of staff from retiring Gen. James McConville. Biden has yet to nominate leaders for the Navy and Air Force.

The impasse seemed to worsen last week, when Tuberville said he won’t use annual defense legislation to seek a vote on the issue. Instead, he wants a standalone vote on the abortion travel policy, which Majority Leader Chuck Schumer may not want to provide.

Taking the National Defense Authorization Act off the table removes a potential relief valve for resolving the dispute. The Senate Armed Services Committee, which Tuberville serves on, will consider the bill this month and could have debated an amendment to block the policies then.

“I would be afraid that it would take longer to get done. It would put confusion in it,” Tuberville said of the defense bill. “The way our world is right now, we need a clean NDAA. Get it done and get it on the floor.”

Tuberville himself can’t prevent any single nominee from being confirmed. Schumer could make procedural maneuvers to get around Tuberville’s hold, but the large number of promotions makes that impractical. Holding individual votes could also validate Tuberville’s claim that he isn’t creating gridlock.