The nominee to be the nation's highest-ranking military officer faced senators Tuesday amid doubts about whether he will be confirmed before his predecessor leaves.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown, the chief of staff of the Air Force who has been nominated to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned senators that an ongoing dispute delaying confirmations -- which he will also be caught in -- could result in junior officers leaving the military rather than risk having their careers stalled and families harmed over political spats.
"The spouse network is alive and well, and the spouses will compare notes," Brown told senators. "The member may want to serve, but the spouses and the families get a huge vote."
At issue is an ongoing blockade Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has maintained on all promotions for one-star generals and admirals and above.
Tuberville is using a procedural move known as a hold to delay military confirmations because of his opposition to the Pentagon's policy allowing service members to take leave and have their travel expenses covered if they seek an abortion. While a hold cannot prevent the Senate from confirming nominees, it means senators would have to take individual roll call votes on each one rather than approving them in batches in voice votes as is usually done for military officers.
With Tuberville's hold embroiling about 250 nominees right now, it would take the Senate 84 days to confirm all of them if the chamber voted exclusively on military nominees for eight hours a day, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Monday. Defense officials have estimated the hold could entangle about 650 nominees by the end of the year.
While Tuberville has maintained his hold since late February, the blockade affected its most high-profile position so far this week. Because of statutory term limits, Gen. David Berger retired as Marine Corps commandant Monday despite his replacement not being confirmed, leaving the service without a Senate-confirmed leader for the first time in more than a century.
The Marines' No. 2 officer, Gen. Eric Smith, who is the nominee to replace Berger, will serve as acting commandant, though he will not be able to issue the strategic guidance until he is confirmed.
The same issue will ripple through the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the coming weeks, culminating with the chairman. The service chiefs of the Army and Navy must leave their posts in August, while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley is due to leave at the end of September.
Defense officials have previously argued that Tuberville's hold harms military families by adding uncertainty to their lives and preventing them from making plans, such as spouses finding new jobs and enrolling kids in new schools in the place the families are supposed to move to for the promotion.
Brown echoed those arguments Tuesday, saying that, because of the stress to military families, "we will lose talent."
Tuberville, who is a member of the Armed Services Committee, did not comment on his hold at the hearing. But he did note how many times Brown has moved in his career, saying, "I don't think a lot of people understand the complexity of that with a family."
With no end in sight to Tuberville's blockade, it's unclear whether Brown can be confirmed before Milley must retire. Asked if the Senate would hold roll call votes on Brown and other high-profile military nominees, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Tuesday that "the responsibility is on [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell ... and the Republican caucus to dissuade Tuberville."
Still, Reed told Military.com he would "assume" Brown gets a roll call vote. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, expressed confidence Brown would be "treated differently" than the other nominees caught in the hold and be confirmed in a roll call vote.
Brown, who was the first Black service chief and would be the second Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs, also faced questions from Republicans about his efforts to increase diversity in the Air Force. In the most testy exchange, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., grilled Brown about a memo he and other leaders of the Air Force and Space Force issued last year calling for a more diverse pool of officer applicants. The memo set "aspirational" race and gender targets for officer applicants, but stressed that they should not supplant the military's "merit-based processes."
"Do we have too many white officers in the Air Force?" Schmitt asked Brown.
Brown, who is perhaps most well-known to the American public for a video he made about his feelings on being a Black man in the military in the wake of George Floyd's killing by police in 2020, stressed the targets were chosen to reflect the demographic makeup of the United States and that the goal of the memo was to encourage outreach to a broader swath of the nation.
"What we looked at was the aspect of providing opportunities for anybody who wants to serve," Brown said. "We do not have quotas. That's against policy."