The Senate Armed Services Committee voted to forward the nomination of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sending it to the Senate for action. Just how long that might take is unclear.
Brown’s was among 2,699 military nominations approved by the SASC as a bloc in a quick voice vote July 20. The Air Chief garnered bipartisan praise and faces no serious opposition in the Senate, his nomination joins more than 100 others for general and flag officers that have been approved in committee only to be held up on the floor.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has had a legislative hold on all general and flag officer nominations since March 8, preventing the Senate from approving them all at once by voice vote. Tuberville placed his hold to protest a Pentagon policy to provide paid leave and travel funds for troops requiring reproductive services, including abortions, who are based in states where those services are not available.
Under pressure from fellow lawmakers and current and former Department of Defense officials, Tuberville has kept his hold in place as more than 250 general and flag officer nominations have been sent to the Senate. About 100 have moved past the committee and awaiting final votes. Tuberville has said he will only lift the hold if the Pentagon cancels the policy, which he considers unlawful, or if Democrats can pass legislation codifying the policy as legal—something Democrats have thus far been unwilling to do.
The Senate could hold roll-call votes on individual nominees, but the Democrats in the majority have declined to do so, saying it would take months of floor time to vote on all of them, and would encourage further blockades by other lawmakers unhappy over policy matters.
Signs of progress toward a resolution are few. Tuberville and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III have spoken twice in the past week after months of minimal contact, and DOD officials briefed members of Congress on the policy on July 19.
Meanwhile, members of the House and Senate have offered amendments to the National Defense Authorization bill that would repeal the Pentagon policy. The House version of the bill includes that measure. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said July 19 he would allow a vote on repealing the policy, saying he was confident it would not pass.
Tuberville says the policy violates the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for most abortions. The Justice Department’s legal justification interpreted that the limit only applies “to funds directly expended for abortion procedures,” arguing that “the Hyde Amendment is best interpreted as not prohibiting indirect expenditures.”
That argument is subject to challenge in court, but thus far no one has challenged the policy on legal grounds.
Tuberville has said he does not want to address the issue through the annual authorization bill, arguing that it is a violation of current law and that unless Democrats vote to codify the policy, it has no legal basis. He said it’s not right to put the onus on Republicans to block the policy, which Democrats in the Senate would not approve, anyway.
The White House insists the policy is legal and necessary. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, the former Pentagon press secretary, called reproductive care “a foundational sacred obligation of military leaders” on July 17. Officials have have accused Tuberville of damaging military readiness by forcing the military to keep vacant key leadership positions while awaiting confirmed replacements. Tuberville disputes the assessment.
In the meantime, Brown’s nomination, along with those for two other service chiefs—the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith and the Army’s Gen. Randy George—remain in limbo. Current Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley’s term is up Oct. 1, giving Congress less than two and a half months to resolve the issue before the nation’s top military job is vacant. In fact, however, that time is short: The Senate is scheduled to recess from July 31-Sept. 4shortening that timeline. The annual defense authorization also must be passed in that time.
If and when Tuberville’s hold is lifted, Brown is likely to be confirmed quickly. Not a single member of the SASC objected to reporting favorably on the bloc of nominations that included him—including Tuberville, who is a member of the committee.