Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is trying to walk a fine line with his decision to vote on a trio of military nominations and overcome Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) hold on promotions.
Schumer is trying to uphold the chamber’s minority protections while not setting a new precedent on military promotions. He’s trying to fill some of the military’s highest-level postings while making the case he can’t call for votes on every nominee.
And he — like most senators in the chamber — is still looking for a resolution to the months-long stalemate.
“There’s no good solutions when you’re managing a crisis like this,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told The Hill of Schumer’s decision. “Sen. Tuberville is weakening our national security every single day. Trying to figure out how to keep the security of the country afloat — it’s not easy.”
Democrats had been adamant that Tuberville’s hold on 300 military nominations was not theirs to solve. They’ve said for most of the year that it is the responsibility of Senate Republicans to convince Tuberville to stand down and have expressed hesitation to hold individual votes on top military figures for fear of setting the precedent that they’ll do so for all 300.
But some within the Senate Democratic caucus told The Hill that Schumer’s surprise announcement Wednesday was the only sensible decision, and the best of the bad options available.
In the end, the chamber overwhelmingly confirmed Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Randy George to be the chief of staff for the Army and Gen. Eric Smith to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps.
The Army and Marine Corps — along with the Navy — had been operating without Senate-confirmed heads, while Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley’s term is set to expire Oct. 1.
Senate Democrats pointed to a number of reasons for Schumer’s change of heart, which came after Tuberville said he would try to use a rare maneuver to force a vote on Smith.
While announcing the impending votes, the New York Democrat indicated that he did not want to set a precedent where the minority party forces votes and controls the floor, effectively siding with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the topic.
McConnell helped derail a push for a similar vote on the Marine Corps commandant prior to the August recess for the same reason.
“The decision by the senior senator from Alabama will have long-lasting repercussions that may not be apparent right away, but we may come to regret,” Schumer said Wednesday. “I believe we will come to regret them.”
Additionally, senators questioned the wisdom of promoting some officials while leaving hundreds of others in limbo.
“We cannot allow Sen. Tuberville to set the Senate on a path that no senator wants to travel,” Schumer said Wednesday. “We cannot allow Sen. Tuberville to decide which of our dedicated and brave service members get promoted and which get to languish.”
Some also believe that Schumer’s move is bolstered by votes held for previous nominees to the Joint Chiefs. For example, Brown’s 2020 nomination to become chief of staff for the Air Force was voted on by the chamber. He was unanimously confirmed 98-0 at the time.
“We’ve never minded the notion of individual votes on some key folks,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The Hill. “It’s just that — vote on them and punish everybody else? That’s not the ethic.”
Timing also played a key role, one Senate source added. Milley’s term expiring is to happen simultaneously with a looming government shutdown that Congress is racing to avoid but has made little progress on.
Some Senate Democrats were also pushing Schumer to act.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told The Hill that she and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) met with the Democratic leader Tuesday to talk about “the urgency of getting all of our senior military officers confirmed.”
“We’re here because Sen. Tuberville is undermining national security and he is starting to feel the heat,” Warren said. “[Schumer] has taken an important step.”
What remains to be seen is whether the three votes will lead to any momentum toward an offramp from Tuberville’s hold.
The Alabama senator reiterated that his blockade will remain in place as long as the Pentagon’s policy covering travel expenses for service members seeking abortion care stands and that he “reserves the right to seek another cloture [petition] on the nominees in the future.”
Democrats expressed hope that the increasing pressure on Tuberville will cause the dam to break for good. Kaine said that situation and the drumbeat is “going to get so painful for the party that is blocking the military from being effective that it’s going to work.”
“The question is: How much pain does the Republican minority want to absorb?” Kaine continued.
The level of pressure in the GOP conference has yet to reach a fever pitch, according to one Senate Republican, who noted that the Alabama senator is starting to feel the heat. However, what remains elusive for members is a resolution to mollify Tuberville.
“Most people are just scratching their heads saying, ‘How does this end?’” the lawmaker said.
The Senate GOP member also indicated that the votes last week are essentially a Band-Aid and that the back-and-forth will likely escalate again in a few weeks, with Schumer and Democrats ratcheting up the pressure.
“Why would you give [Tuberville] a pass?” the Senate Republican said of the Democratic playbook.