Joint Chiefs Prepare for Vacancy at the Top as Senate Bickers over Confirmations Blockade

by Braxton Taylor

The Pentagon says that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is going to increase his efforts to lift the hold on hundreds of general and flag officer promotions as Congress’ summer recess comes to an end.

“Now that the August recess is over, Secretary Austin continues to lean hard into this and plans to conduct additional calls with senators this week,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters at a briefing Tuesday.

The blockade on promotions is the work of a single senator — Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. — who is forcing the chamber to hold roll call votes on each nominee individually. The hundreds of held-up promotions would take months to deal with under the Senate’s infamously plodding pace.

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The holds have meant that the Army, Navy and Marine Corps are now being overseen by unconfirmed officers who are leading the three branches in acting capacities. Now, on Sept. 29, the military’s top military officer — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley — is also set to retire and leave his post vacant.

Ryder confirmed earlier Monday that if Milley’s replacement, Gen. Charles “C.Q.” Brown, the current Air Force chief of staff, is not confirmed, the job will be filled by the Joint Chiefs vice chairman in an acting capacity.

Military leaders have repeatedly stressed, both in speeches and television appearances, that these holds are harmful to readiness and national security. Tuberville, who opposes the Pentagon policy allowing troops leave time for abortions, has denied his holds are damaging and showed no signs of relenting.

Ryder said the vice chairman, Adm. Christopher Grady, stepping into Milley’s shoes would result in far too many responsibilities for one person.

“The vice chairman has several roles and responsibilities in his own right, including leading the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, representing the military at the National Security Council’s deputies meetings, co-chairing the deputies management group, participating in the Joint Chiefs of Staff Tank, as well as many other issues focused on oversight and coordination of interdepartmental groups,” Ryder told reporters.

Without Brown’s confirmation, those responsibilities wouldn’t go away — they would be added to the duties of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

“That’s a lot for one person to cover for an extended period of time,” Ryder said.

Until recently, military officials have stayed away from offering specific impacts of the promotion holds, instead tending to use broader language.

At the retirement of the Navy’s former top officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, the service’s civilian leader, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, described the hold as putting “the very lives … of servicemen and women … at risk by not allowing our most experienced warfighters to lead.”

Meanwhile, at the same event, Austin told the crowd of mostly military leaders and families that “our troops deserve better,” before adding that “our military families deserve better, our allies and partners deserve better, and our national security deserves better.”

The Pentagon has confirmed that Austin and his legislative team have been engaging with Senate leadership and senators on both sides of the aisle, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Ryder has also said that the secretary conducted three phone calls with Tuberville over the issue in which he explained the impact of the holds on the military’s operations.

The Pentagon spokesman would not elaborate further on those calls Monday.

Democrats have increasingly signaled they are unlikely to hold a roll call vote on Brown or other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to get around Tuberville’s hold, arguing that the onus is on Republicans to get Tuberville to relent. In turn, Republicans have started to pin blame on the vacancies on Schumer for not scheduling roll call votes on at least the top brass.

“We could also easily confirm you if Chuck Schumer would get off the dime and show us that he actually cares about supporting our men and women in uniform,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing for Gen. David Allvin, who has been nominated to replace Brown as Air Force chief of staff.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., shot back that confirming just the highest-ranking officers would “punish everybody else.”

“What, we’re going to have votes for the top brass and just turn a blind eye to punishing hundreds of other people who are waiting?” Kaine said. “That seems to be completely contrary to what I know the U.S. military ethic is.”

— Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

— Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

Related: Air Force Has Most Delayed Promotions from Tuberville Hold as New Vice Chief Nominated

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