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Biden Warns of Vacant Joint Chiefs Chairman Position

President Joe Biden on Thursday acknowledged on an international stage that the U.S. in a matter of weeks may not have a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – America’s most important military position – due to a political crusade by a lone Republican senator.

Speaking at a press conference in Helsinki alongside the president of Finland, NATO’s newest member, Biden was responding to questions about an ongoing standoff with Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who has blocked the promotions of hundreds of senior military officers over his concerns about Pentagon policies regarding abortion. The former college football coach turned politician faces condemnation – and deepening concerns – from the Biden administration backed by a growing chorus of members of Congress, including Republicans who fear their colleague from Alabama is recklessly endangering their election prospects in the near future.

Calling his position “ridiculous” and “totally irresponsible,” Biden blasted Tuberville for “jeopardizing U.S. security.”

“I expect the Republican Party to stand up, stand up, and do something about it. It’s in their power to do that,” he said.

“The idea that we don’t have a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the idea that we have all these promotions that are in abeyance right now, that we don’t know what’s going to happen, the idea that we’re injecting into fundamental foreign policy decisions what, in fact, is a domestic social debate on social issues is bizarre,” Biden added. “I don’t ever recall that happening – ever.“

Tuberville, whose position on the Senate Armed Services Committee allows him to block officer promotions that are usually approved in bulk, objects to the current Pentagon policy of reimbursing members of the military who need to travel to obtain particular health care services, including abortions. He and other members of his party believe the policy violates the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds to perform abortions.

Defense Department officials, however, say they are basing the policy on a legal opinion from the Justice Department that stipulates the amendment does not apply to travel or other related expenses with regard to non-covered reproductive health care, including abortions but also in vitro fertilization and egg retrieval.

The senator from Alabama came under fire this week from other members of the committee during the nomination hearing for Gen. C.Q. Brown, the current Air Force chief of staff and Biden’s nominee to take over the top military position from Army Gen. Mark Milley when he retires in September.

Brown, like other senior officers who have appeared before the committee, documented the litany of problems created by Tuberville’s hold, including senior positions left vacant or to a temporary lower-ranking officer, other officers – and their families – left in limbo by not being able to move to a new duty station and the broader message of dysfunction sent to the troops during a time in which nearly all of the services are experiencing deep recruitment shortfalls.

“We will lose talent,” Brown said. “The spouse network is alive and well, and the spouses will compare notes.”

“The member may want to serve, but the spouses and the families get a huge vote,” he added.

The Pentagon confirmed late Thursday that Tuberville and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke by phone earlier that afternoon, following news reports that the senator from Alabama had rebuffed Austin’s overtures.

Spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, however, had few details to share and no indication of any progress as a result of the exchange about what he described as Tuberville’s “unprecedented blanket hold.”

“During the brief call, Secretary Austin explained to Sen. Tuberville the impact the holds are having to military readiness and uncertainty in the future,” Ryder said. “The two did agree to speak again next week.”

Ryder declined to comment on the tone of the call or whether Austin believed a breakthrough is possible.

Beyond Pentagon concerns that military readiness is “at risk,” the hold is already affecting the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as the Marine Corps for the first time in more than a century does not have a Senate-confirmed commandant. Gen. Eric Smith, who previously served as assistant commandant, took over as the acting commandant this week when federal law dictated that Marine Gen. David Berger had to vacate his position. Portraits in the Pentagon showing each of the services’ top leaders as of Wednesday left an ominous empty frame for the Marine Corps.

Tuberville has faced growing condemnation from other members of his party who believe he is needlessly endangering U.S. military readiness – and perhaps their own political prospects.

“No, I don’t support putting a hold on military nominations,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican in the Senate, told reporters in May. “I don’t support that. As to why, you would need to ask Sen. Tuberville.”

Other Republicans, including Tuberville, have fired back at Biden that the president is also playing “abortion politics” with the military.

The Biden administration at the end of May signaled it would block a plan to move the headquarters for the newly formed Space Force to Alabama due to the state’s new restrictive abortion laws in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Biden himself on Thursday suggested Tuberville’s political colleagues should be doing more to break his grip on military promotions.

“I’m confident the mainstream Republican Party does not support what he’s doing. But they’ve got to stand up, be counted,” Biden said. “That’s how it ends.”

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