Tactical

Top Marine nominee unlikely to get confirmed before predecessor retires

A key Senate panel on Thursday advanced the nomination of Gen. Eric Smith to serve as the next commandant of the Marine Corps, but a timeline for his confirmation is unclear ― even as the current commandant prepares to step away.

Gen. David Berger, who has served in the role since July 2019, must retire July 10.

Defense Department officials had hoped to have his replacement in place shortly after his departure, but the congressional calendar and ongoing political fights over military abortion access policies have thrown that timeline into disarray.

As the current assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, Smith would step into the commandant role on an acting basis if the Senate can’t finalize his confirmation by July 10.

But the Senate is scheduled to take a two-week legislative break starting June 23, and Senate leaders said they have no path to finish the confirmation before then.

By law, an acting commandant has the same duties and powers as a commandant.

However, defense leaders in recent years have emphasized that acting officials do not typically launch new programs or put in place new force-shaping initiatives until they are formally confirmed for the job.

Smith likely will have to serve as acting commandant for days — or weeks — while the Senate stalemate over his confirmation is resolved.

Smith received mostly positive reviews from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing earlier in June. He pledged his focus in the Marine Corps leadership role would center on “accelerating being more lethal, accelerating being even more ready” as a service.

As the top Marine leader, Smith pledged, he will focus on “accelerating being more lethal, accelerating being even more ready” as a service.

The committee on Thursday advanced his nomination without objection. In past years, Senate leaders would typically fast-track full-chamber confirmation of nominations such as Smith to ensure a continuity of leadership at the military service.

However, that won’t happen this time, because of an ongoing hold by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, on all senior military nominees over his objections to the Defense Department’s abortion policies. More than 200 nominees have been caught up in the hold since March.

In fall 2022, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced plans to provide leave time and travel stipends for troops and qualified family members to travel across state lines to receive abortion services. Pentagon officials said the move was needed in light of numerous new state laws limiting reproductive care options.

But Tuberville — and several other Republican lawmakers — have attacked the policy as an illegal overreach by military leaders. Tuberville has insisted he will not allow any nominees to move quickly through the chamber until the policy is rescinded or until Congress can vote on whether to permit it.

That has remained true for Smith even though Tuberville praised Smith at his confirmation hearing June 13 and declared, “Congratulations on your nomination, and look forward to supporting you.”

Tuberville’s staff members on Thursday reiterated the senator’s support for Smith as a nominee but opposition to the abortion policy. They said he does not plan to drop his hold to speed Smith’s case.

Smith’s nomination isn’t the only high-profile military leadership change threatened by Tuberville’s hold. President Joe Biden’s pick for the next Joint Chiefs chairman, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., also faces a delay in taking over that role because of the political showdown.

Smith told senators at his confirmation hearing that the delay in confirmations could leave worrisome gaps at high-level Marine commands and cause a trickle-down effect that would make it harder for some lieutenant colonels to get promoted.

“I think it certainly compromises our ability to be most ready,” Smith said.

Senate leaders can get around Tuberville’s holds, but doing so would take several days of parliamentary procedures. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said doing that for each of the 200-plus defense nominees would snarl all Senate business for months.

On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, said he is exploring all options to accelerate Smith’s confirmation, but did not provide any details.

Even if Senate leaders opt to handle Smith’s nomination on an individual basis, that work won’t get done for at least a few more weeks, after the Senate’s planned recess concludes.

Four Marines have served as acting commandant since the Corps’ inception, according to a list compiled by the Marine Corps University’s History Division.

One of them was Archibald Henderson, who served as acting commandant from Sept. 16, 1818, until March 2, 1819, and would go on to serve as commandant for more than 38 years.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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