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Marine Corps Without Confirmed Leader as Officials Clash Over Defense Department's Abortion Travel Policy

The Marines have not been without a Senate-confirmed leader in more than 160 years

General David Berger retired as the commandant of the United States Marine Corps, marking the first time in 164 years that the military branch has been without a Senate-confirmed leader

The Senate has been unable to confirm any nomination of senior military positions because of a clash between one lawmaker and the Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin over abortion.

Berger became the Marine Corps commandant in July of 2019 and is not permitted to hold the position for more than four years. 

“I tried my best to make sure that the Marine Corps is ready today and ready five, 10 years from now. Where we have succeeded, all the credit goes to all of the Marines around the world who are trying things, experimenting,” he said during his relinquishment of command ceremony at Marine Barracks in Washington, DC on July 10.

General Eric Smith, who will serve as acting commandant, can implement budget decisions, training policies, and personnel changes. He is not permitted to act in a manner that presumes confirmation, such as moving into the commandant’s office or residence or issuing a new formal commandant’s planning guidance.

Smith is a graduate of Texas A&M and was commissioned in 1987. He deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and to Liberia during Operation Assured Response, as well as Venezuela. Additionally, Smith “helped Berger in developing Force Design 2030, a strategy for future Marine service that has been met with some pushback,” per UPI.

“Because no 39th commandant has yet been confirmed by the Senate, I will perform the duties of the commandant using the full authority of that office until such time as a confirmation occurs,” Smith said in a video message to Marines after the public ceremony “More detailed guidance to the Corps will be issued in the near future. But until then, all current orders and directives remain in effect unless I direct otherwise.”

President Joe Biden nominated Smith, the current assistant commandant, to formally take over leadership of the Marines on May 31.

Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama is blocking all military confirmations because Austin authorized the DOD to cover the travel costs incurred by a service member who goes out of state for an abortion or reproductive care, per KRON4.

Approximately 250 Navy and Marine Corps nominations are on pause since the conflict between Tuberville and Austin began in February, per USNI News

Tuberville has argued the travel compensation policy is an illegal expansion of the authority granted to the DOD.

“I’m holding DOD nominations because the secretary of defense is trying to push through a massive expansion of taxpayer-subsidized abortions without going through this body, without going through Congress,” said Tuberville in February while speaking from the Senate floor, per The Washington Examiner.

Tuberville explained that he told Austin that “if he tried to turn the DOD into an abortion travel agency” he would ”place a hold on all civilian, flag, and general officer nominees.”

“Other than a couple of calls to my staff to ask whether I was serious, the DOD leadership has yet to call me directly and justify this action,” said Tuberville. “In fact, they have not explained this decision to Congress despite multiple letters, more than a dozen, from my colleagues on the Armed Services Committee.” 

“If my colleague cared about military readiness, maybe we’d go after more of the ridiculous policies that have led to our lowest — our lowest — recruitment numbers in decades,” the senator added. “But my hold does send a message that the secretary is not — and I repeat, not — above the law. And he cannot ignore lawmakers who are demanding his organization abide by law. … Americans want a military focused on a national defense, and that’s what I’m fighting for.”

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