The Marine Corps is on track to be led by an acting commandant for the first time in 164 years as senators leave town for two weeks with no end in sight to a standoff over military confirmations.
The term for the current Marine commandant, Gen. David Berger, expires July 10, "at which time he must vacate the office, regardless of whether a successor has been appointed," service spokesperson Maj. Jim Stenger told Military.com in an email last week. Berger's deputy and nominated successor, Gen. Eric Smith, will fill the position in an acting role.
The failure to confirm Smith to be the next Marine Corps chief is due to a single-handed hold on confirmations by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., over Pentagon abortion leave policies. The position is the highest in the military so far to feel the pinch of Tuberville's hold, but the Defense Department has warned that hundreds of officer promotions could be disrupted this year.
"Until a new commandant is confirmed by the Senate and appointed to the position, Gen. Smith will be the acting commandant, retaining the title and position of assistant commandant," Stenger said.
The Senate left for its Fourth of July recess Thursday evening and is not scheduled to be back in session until the same day Berger retires, making it impossible for Smith to be confirmed before Berger leaves.
On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to advance Smith's nomination, but the panel's move will have little effect in moving it along. Aside from the Senate's summer absence, Smith now hits the blockade that Tuberville has maintained since February on all general and flag officers.
While the Senate would typically confirm uncontroversial nominees such as Smith quickly after the Armed Services Committee advances them, Tuberville's objection to fast-tracking general and flag officer confirmations means the Marines will be without a Senate-confirmed leader for the first time since Archibald Henderson died in office in 1859, committee staffers told reporters Friday.
Tuberville is using a procedural tactic known as a hold to stonewall all nominees for O-7 and above over his opposition to a Pentagon abortion policy unveiled earlier this year. The policy allows service members to take nonchargeable leave and have their travel expenses paid for if they need to go far from their base to receive an abortion or other reproductive health care not offered by the department, such as in vitro fertilization.
While a hold cannot prevent the Senate from confirming nominees, it requires the chamber to take individual roll call votes on each nominee rather than quickly confirming them in batches with a voice vote as it usually does for military officers. With more than 250 nominees trapped in Tuberville's hold now, and about 650 expected to be caught by the end of the year, confirming them individually would be a months-long, impractical process.
Meanwhile, senators are using their annual defense policy bill to prod the Pentagon to explain the legality of the abortion policy at the center of the confirmation fight.
The version of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, advanced by the committee this week would direct the Pentagon to provide a report to Congress on the "legality, oversight functions and processes" related to the abortion leave policy, according to a summary released Friday.
The Justice Department has already conducted a legal analysis of the Pentagon policy. While Republicans who oppose the policy argue it violates legal restrictions on the use of Pentagon funding for abortions, the Justice Department maintains those restrictions apply only to actually performing abortions and that the Defense Department policy is consistent with other government agencies, such as the Peace Corps, which cover costs incidental to abortion.
Senators are asking for the report to be done by July 24 so they receive it before the full Senate votes on the NDAA, committee staffers said Friday. The information in the report could be used for action on the policy when the bill comes to the Senate floor or is being reconciled with the House version of the bill, committee staffers and senators said.
The language on the abortion policy is in the report accompanying the bill, which means it is not legally binding but also that lawmakers can request the Pentagon come back with answers before the bill becomes law.
Calling for a report on the abortion policy was a compromise offered by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., after senators debated and rejected a measure from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, that would have reversed the Pentagon policy entirely, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters Friday.
"It was a spirited discussion, and it took a long time," Kaine said about the committee's closed-door debate on the abortion policy. "But pretty much everybody around the table, we all knew where each other was on the discussion, and so it was not uncivil or argumentative."
Committee staffers said they have no indication that including the report in the NDAA will get Tuberville to back off his hold. Tuberville has previously said a committee vote on the policy is not enough to get him to change course.
That means the number of acting chiefs could grow beyond Smith and the Marines, a potential committee staffers alluded to as they stressed that they have several major confirmation hearings on tap after the recess.
Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown, the current chief of staff of the Air Force, has been named to take over for Gen. Mark Milley as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leaving the leadership of the Air Force unfilled. Milley's term expires at the end of September.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.