Senate Finally Confirms 3 Top Military Officers After Fellow Republicans Erupt in Anger over Tuberville Blockade

Sen. Dan Sullivan speaking on the Senate floor
This image from Senate Television video shows Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. Republican senators angrily challenged Sen. Tommy Tuberville on his blockade of almost 400 military officers, taking over the Senate floor for hours to call for individual confirmation votes after a monthslong stalemate. (Senate Television via AP)

Chiefs of the Navy and Air Force, as well as the second-in-command at the Marine Corps, were confirmed Thursday by the Senate after a wild week that saw the leader of the Marines hospitalized and Republican senators unleash fury at the member of their party responsible for blocking the promotions of nearly 380 generals and admirals.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly to confirm Adm. Lisa Franchetti as chief of naval operations, making her the first woman to sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David Allvin as chief of staff of the Air Force. The chamber also unanimously approved Lt. Gen. Christopher Mahoney to get a fourth star and be the assistant commandant of the Marines, allowing him to step in as acting commandant while Gen. Eric Smith remains hospitalized for an undisclosed medical emergency.

The confirmations came after a group of Republicans, led by Marine reservist Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, held the Senate floor for more than four hours on Wednesday night to force Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., to object one-by-one to promoting 61 military nominees.

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While some Republicans had previously commented that they opposed Tuberville's tactic, Wednesday night's showdown on the Senate floor marked the first time Republicans took public action to try to overcome the blockade Tuberville has maintained on senior military promotions for eight months.

Tuberville has placed what's known as a hold on all one-star general and admiral nominees and above over his opposition to the Pentagon's abortion policy, preventing the Senate from approving the nominees in a batch in a speedy voice vote as it usually does for apolitical military promotions.

"There is growing bitterness within the ranks of our military," Sullivan said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "The men and women who've served our country so well for decades -- probably the most combat-experienced generation since World War II -- have made huge sacrifices, multiple deployments, and now their careers are being punished over a policy dispute they had nothing to do with and no power to resolve.

"And the idea that some of these officers are supposedly woke or desk jockeys, it's ridiculous," Sullivan added.

Sullivan, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee's readiness subcommittee, also said Tuberville was "100% wrong" in his belief that his hold has not hurt the military's ability to be ready for a war.

In addition to making history by confirming the first female member of the Joint Chiefs, Thursday's Senate votes also mean that there will be no vacancies on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the first time since July. And it relieves the three-star general the Marines tapped to lead the service during Smith's hospitalization while there was no Senate-confirmed assistant commandant.

Prior to his sudden hospitalization Sunday, Smith had been doing the job of both commandant and assistant and had said he was only getting about five hours of sleep a night.

"We have seen tragic effects of that stress, but in a day-to-day sense, we've also seen the stress at the individual, human level," Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said Thursday when asked about Tuberville's holds.

Pressed on whether she was referring specifically to Smith, Hicks said she "will only say that Gen. Smith has indicated that he's trying to work two jobs, that he's working from 6 a.m. to 11 at night. I think it speaks for itself."

Sullivan was joined on the floor Wednesday by GOP Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Todd Young of Indiana -- all veterans -- as well as Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. While all five said they opposed the Pentagon policy of providing leave and travel expenses to troops seeking abortions, they argued that blocking military promotions is the wrong way to fight the policy.

Throughout the night, the senators suggested several alternatives for Tuberville to try to undo the Pentagon abortion policy, including suing the Pentagon, placing a hold only on Defense Department civilian nominees, or even allowing the Pentagon to work with a charity to fund abortion-related travel rather than using taxpayer funding.

The floor action was remarkable both because of the rarity of senators from the same party confronting each other directly in public and because of the personal tone senators' comments sometimes took.

After Tuberville objected to confirming Air Force Maj. Gen. Laura Lenderman as deputy commander of Pacific Air Forces, Graham turned to Tuberville while holding up a picture of Lenderman and told him, "You just denied this lady a promotion. You did that."

"Xi Jinping is loving this. So is Putin," Sullivan said as the night wore on, referring to the Chinese and Russian leaders. "How dumb can we be, man?"

And at the end of the night, after the quintet had repeatedly highlighted Tuberville's own words that he supports individual confirmation votes, Ernst said: "I respect men of their word. I do not respect men who do not honor their word."

Tuberville on Thursday brushed off his colleagues' criticism and said he still has no plans to lift his hold. "I'm glad I was a football coach for 30 years because I was called everything in the world," he said.

Tuberville voted to confirm all three nominees the Senate approved Thursday. The only "no" vote on Franchetti and Allvin came from Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan.

Allvin, the newly confirmed Air Force chief of staff, said in a statement that he was "humbled by this opportunity" and is "eager to continue to serve our Air Force, our airmen, and their families."

The fate of the remaining 375 nominees caught in Tuberville's hold remains up in the air. Democrats are proposing a temporary rules change that would allow the Senate to approve most of the nominees in a single vote rather than individually, but at least nine Republicans need to go along with the plan for it to pass.

No Republicans have yet announced support for the Democratic plan -- but none of the five who publicly fought Tuberville ruled out supporting the proposal Thursday.

"We have to consider it, but we don't want to go there," Ernst said. "We're going to try every avenue possible, and I wish that Coach Tuberville, the DoD, [Senate Majority Leader Charles] Schumer, whoever it takes, can find a way out of this."

Sullivan said he's heard from multiple service members who appreciated the stand he and his colleagues made Wednesday.

"Somebody's fighting for them," he said Thursday. "I'm still getting text messages from colonels and brigadier generals like, 'Wow.'"

-- Thomas Novelly and Konstantin Toropin contributed to this story.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

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