Military logjam worsens as senators leave town with no fix to Tuberville blockade


“This is uncharted waters,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

The aftershocks of the hold go well beyond Washington and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they’ll only worsen over the five-week Senate recess.

The logjam affects more than 270 military officers. They include 10 four-star officers, 54 three-stars, 70 two-stars and 139 one-stars, according to a Senate Armed Services Committee aide. Twenty-one of those three- and four-star officers have had their retirements deferred to ensure continuity of command.

Among the field commanders on hold is Rear Adm. Frederick Kacher, the pick to lead the Navy’s Japan-based 7th Fleet, which oversees naval activities for the Asia-Pacific region. It’s the largest of the forward-deployed U.S. fleets, with 50 to 70 ships and submarines, 150 aircraft and 27,000 sailors and Marines.

Current U.S. 7th Fleet commander, Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, was nominated in March to be the next director of naval intelligence, a critical position for the service that he will be unable to fill until his nomination makes it through the Senate. The job is currently held by Vice Adm. Jeffrey Trussler, who is retiring.

Another is Rear Adm. George Wikoff, who was nominated in January to lead the Navy’s 5th Fleet. The command is responsible for the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea and Strait of Hormuz, where the U.S. is sending ships, aircraft and Marines as Iranian ships try to seize oil tankers. It’s also a critical training ground for the Navy, which has set up Task Force 59 in the region to experiment with uncrewed ships as part of a major push by the service to get more drones into the fleet as quickly as possible.

Of the officers who can’t retire, Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, has been forced to stay on in the position because Gen. Ken Wilsbach, who currently commands Pacific Air Forces, is ensnared in the Tuberville blockade.

Also on hold are the nominees to lead the Defense Intelligence Agency, which produces some of the information that goes into the president’s daily briefing; the Missile Defense Agency, Cyber Command and the National Security Agency and Army Space and Missile Defense Command.

Ninety percent of the U.S. military’s 852 general and flag officers could eventually be affected by the blockade, according to the Senate Armed Services aide, who was granted anonymity to describe the sensitive situation. This year, 650 of them will need to pass through the Senate for promotion or reassignment, while another 110 will have to do two jobs simultaneously.

Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine major general and former top Armed Services Committee staffer, called Tuberville’s tactics “pathetic.” He sounded a pessimistic note that the senator could be easily convinced to drop the effort.

“It is having an impact,” Punaro said in a POLITICO Playbook interview. “And unfortunately, the only way you can ever prove it to somebody like Sen. Tuberville, who’s never served … is you’re not going to really be able to prove it to anybody till young Marines and young soldiers die in combat because they’re not as well led.”

Senators point fingers

Democrats hammered Tuberville in the closing days of the session, ripping him for harming readiness, disrupting the lives of military families about to move to different postings and politicizing a typically speedy process. And they say this is Republicans’ mess to fix.

“The Republican leadership should ask Tommy Tuberville whether he wants to be an Armed Services Committee member or not, because he’s now behaving in a way that would suggest he doesn’t care about our military,” Kaine said.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has rejected Tuberville’s demands, but did offer Tuberville a vote on the policy when the Senate debated its annual defense bill over the last two weeks. But Tuberville has batted down the possibility of releasing his hold without the administration first withdrawing the policy.

“Change the policy back — and then write out what you want to vote on. I’d probably vote against it. But if it passed, it passed, and it’s law,” he said.

If the dispute drags out into the fall, it could mean that half of the eight-member Joint Chiefs are all acting officials. In October, Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley is set to leave. President Joe Biden’s pick to replace him — Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown — will have to stay put.

Democrats took to the floor Wednesday, led by Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.), to condemn Tuberville, defend the policy’s legality and highlight the specific nominees being held up.

The normally reserved Reed slammed Tuberville, accusing him of constantly changing his demands of the Pentagon and attempting to grind the Senate to a halt by calling for “virtually impossible” votes on individual nominees, a move that would take months and leave the upper chamber with time for practically nothing else.

“At this point, one has to wonder if he actually wants to achieve his demands or if he just wants to stay in the spotlight,” Reed said. He also charged that Tuberville was using the fight for his political benefit by fundraising off the issue.

Tuberville shot back on Thursday that his holds are not impacting national security. Instead, he argued Democrats should just hold votes if they’re concerned about lasting vacancies.

“My holds does not prevent any nomination from being confirmed,” Tuberville wrote on Twitter. “All of the DoD nominations can still be approved by the Senate, but the Majority Leader must make time for them to be considered on the floor.”

Tuberville argues his move is far from unprecedented. He pointed to Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s (D-Ill.) 2020 threat to hold up over 1,100 promotions to ensure that Trump impeachment witness Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman wasn’t being denied a promotion. But that standoff was quickly resolved.

His calls to vote on individual promotions — an argument he’s made to underscore that he’s technically not preventing anyone’s confirmation — have been rejected by Democrats because it would politicize the nominations. Schumer instead has kept pressure on Republican leaders to rein in their fellow GOP senator.

Entering the summer stalemate

The summer recess, Schumer predicted, could force the Alabama Republican’s hand.

“I think in August, pressure is going to mount on Tuberville. And I think the Republicans are feeling that heat,” Schumer said. “He’s boxing himself into a corner.”

It’s unclear if intervention from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has broken publicly with Tuberville over holding up the typically uncontroversial promotions, or other Republicans would help. Tuberville has suggested he would continue no matter what.

“We agree with him on policy but we think holding these people hostage is doing damage,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “I don’t know how to fix it”

Punaro, the former Senate Armed Services director, was blunt.

“He’s a coward, in my book,” he said of Tuberville. “He won’t even bring an amendment to the floor and get it voted on to change the policy.”

As the logjam continues into September, the abortion policy will be on the table in negotiations between the House and Senate on a final defense bill. The Senate sidestepped the issue completely in its bill that passed Thursday, despite Schumer offering Tuberville a vote.

A more conservative House bill that passed largely along party lines includes a GOP-backed provision to block the policy. But that’s a non-starter in the Democratic-led Senate.


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