Navy Chief Retires, Leaves Third Military Branch Without Confirmed Leader Amid Tuberville Abortion Hold

The U.S. Navy is now the third military service without a Senate-confirmed chief of staff as an impasse over the military’s abortion policies continues to delay the confirmation process.
Navy Chief Retires, Leaves Third Military Branch Without Confirmed Leader Amid Tuberville Abortion Hold
Navy Vice Adm. Michael M. Gilday testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on July 31, 2019. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Ryan Morgan

The U.S. Navy is now the third military service without a Senate-confirmed chief of staff as an impasse over the military’s abortion policies continues to delay the confirmation process.

On Monday, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday retired from the service, stepping down from his role as the top officer for the service. With Adm. Gilday’s retirement, the Navy has one more opening to be filled.

Last month, President Joe Biden nominated Adm. Lisa Franchetti to replace Adm. Gilday as the Chief of Naval Operations. Adm. Franchetti took over for Adm. Gilday on Monday, but only in an acting capacity. If confirmed, she would be the first woman to serve as Chief of Naval Operations and the first woman to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It’s unclear when Adm. Franchetti’s nomination may come to a vote. The Senate typically confirms military nominations in large batches through unanimous consent procedures, but Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has placed a hold on the process, preventing nominations from proceeding in such a way.

For months, Mr. Tuberville has kept up the hold in protest of a Department of Defense (DOD) policy that funds travel and leave for military service members who want to get an abortion.

Current federal laws codified under the Hyde Amendment prohibit federal funds from going toward abortions, except in cases where a pregnancy threatens the life of the mother or a pregnancy comes about as a result of rape or incest. The DOD contends that its policy of supporting abortion-related travel is distinct enough to skirt the Hyde Amendment rules, but Mr. Tuberville insists otherwise and has vowed to maintain his hold until the DOD retracts the policy or Congress acts to change the laws.

While Mr. Tuberville’s hold on the nomination process prevents large-batch confirmations of military nominees, the Senate can still confirm nominees through its normal procedural rules, but this makes for a slower process.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin alluded to the delay in confirmations during Mr. Gilday’s relinquishment ceremony on Monday.

“As you know, more than 300 nominations for our outstanding general and flag officers are now being held up in the United States Senate. That includes our top uniformed leaders and our next Chief of Naval Operations,” Mr. Austin said. “Because of this blanket hold, starting today, for the first time in the history of the Department of Defense, three of our military services are operating without Senate-confirmed leaders.”

Last month, U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger retired, making the Marine Corps the first U.S. military branch without a senate-confirmed chief of staff since Mr. Tuberville placed his hold. Last week, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville also retired, leaving a second service without a Senate-confirmed Chief of Staff.

In his Monday remarks, Mr. Austin said the continued hold on military nominations is “unprecedented, it is unnecessary, and it is unsafe.”

“Smooth and swift transitions of confirmed leadership are central to the defense of the United States and to the full strength of the most lethal fighting force in history, and it’s time for the Senate to confirm all of our superbly qualified military nominees, including the 33rd Chief of Naval Operations,” Mr. Austin added.

Tuberville Hasn’t Budged

Despite pressure from the Biden administration and Senate Democrats, there have been no indications that Mr. Tuberville is willing to lift his hold on the military nomination process without the DOD reversing its abortion travel policy.
At a July 14 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) press conference in Finland, President Joe Biden accused Mr. Tuberville of “jeopardizing U.S. security” with his hold. When a reporter at the NATO press conference asked if President Biden would be willing to speak with Mr. Tuberville to reach a compromise, the president replied, “I'd be willing to talk to him if I thought there’s any possibility he was changing this ridiculous position he has.”

Mr. Tuberville pushed back on those remarks from the president stating, “Does that sound like anybody that wants to get anything done?”

The Alabama Republican noted he had been warning the DOD against its abortion policy for months before it was formally announced and continued to criticize it for months still before high-level military vacancies began to emerge. Mr. Tuberville also described limited efforts by the Biden administration to reach out and resolve the issue. The senator briefly spoke with Mr. Austin after President Biden’s remarks at the NATO conference, but neither side has changed position in the weeks since.

The continued delays have led to some discussions about a change to Senate procedures to override Mr. Tuberville. Last week, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Mr. Tuberville is “prepared to burn the military down“ if the DOD doesn’t back down, and suggested the Senate temporarily change its rules to circumvent Mr. Tuberville’s hold.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated he opposes Mr. Tuberville’s hold on military nominations, but said he’s reluctant to change Senate rules to break the logjam.

“We have holds on both sides,” Mr. McConnell said last month. “What typically happens is you work it out and I think that’s where we ought to stay.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he’d be open to taking a standalone vote on the Pentagon’s abortion policy. Mr. Tuberville told NBC News he’d be open to the idea, though it’s unclear how such a vote will resolve the situation. If the Democrat-controlled Senate voted in favor of the DOD abortion policy, it wouldn’t necessarily address the opposition Mr. Tuberville has described to the DOD having the ability to set the policy in the first place. On the other hand, even if enough Democrats joined Republicans in passing legislation to rescind the DOD abortion policy, President Biden could potentially still veto it, and the policy would remain.