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For the first time in the history of the Department of Defense, three of the military branches are without leaders.

Hundreds of other nominations - promoting people to high-level military jobs - are being held up in the Senate by Alabama Republican Tommy Tuberville.

Such nominations are normally submitted in batches to the Senate for consideration and approval. But that process requires unanimous consent, which means a single legislator can block it.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin criticized the hold as an “unprecedented” move that hurts national security.

“It is unnecessary and it is unsafe,” Austin said at an August retirement ceremony for outgoing Navy chief Admiral Mike Gilday. “This sweeping hold is undermining America's military readiness. It's hindering our ability to retain our very best officers. And it is upending the lives of far too many American military families.”

Gilday is scheduled to be replaced by Admiral Lisa Franchetti, the first woman nominated as a service chief. Like other military personnel affected by the hold, Franchetti will serve in an acting acting capacity until she is confirmed by the Senate.

Tuberville began holding up military nominations in February, after the Biden administration announced a new reproductive health policy affecting service members. Now that several states have outlawed or restricted abortions, the policy grants troops leave and travel reimbursement funds money for the procedure.

Tuberville and his supporters say the Biden administration overreached. They say the abortion travel policy is illegal, and Congress should have a chance to vote on it.

On the Senate floor, Republican Mike Lee of Utah defended Tuberville in July.

“The President of the United States has the audacity to lay at [Tuberville’s] feet any suffering, any misfortune, any unhappiness among these families, any military readiness [issues] that may flow from this,” Lee said, “When he knows that, in order to score cheap political points with the abortion lobby, he's willing to bring these things on.”

A group of military spouses said the gridlock over promotions is straining their families and hurting operations.

“Our military service members and their families are absolutely being used as a bargaining chip here,” said Bana Miller, an Army wife and board member of the Secure Families Initiative. “Leadership is not in place. Some senior folks are being asked to delay retirement until their replacements get confirmed. More junior military personnel can't necessarily advance because there's now a clog in the promotions pipeline, so to speak. It affects morale for every single service member and their families.”

As a result of the hold, some service members haven’t been given orders for their next duty station — making it harder for their spouses to maintain jobs and enroll their children in school.

“Some families are stuck paying out of pocket for those moves while they await orders,” Miller added. “That can be a huge financial burden.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III along with senior army officials attends the Chief of Staff of the Army Relinquishment of Responsibility and Sergeant Major of the Army Change of Responsibility Ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson, Va., Aug. 4, 2023 (DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Cesar J. Navarro)
Photo by Department of Defense 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin, center, attended an Army Change of Responsbility Ceremony in Northern Virginia earlier this month. Many leadership appointments in the military aren't finalized and causing issues with military families' plans for school and jobs.

Supporters of the hold point out that military positions aren't going unfilled. The Pentagon has the authority to appoint acting leaders if an official promotion is delayed. But Marine Corps spouse Brandi Jones said that means military personnel are being asked to do more advanced jobs without an increase in pay or rank.

“An example would be someone who's on an international call — and everyone else from every country has the rank of general, except for that member of the military for the U.S.,” said Jones, the Organizing Director of the Secure Families Initiative. “So they’re being placed in the acting role, but not really being provided with all their capabilities, or even an aide.”

It's not clear how the impasse might end. Senate leaders could theoretically get around the hold by scheduling separate votes on each promotion. But Texas Democratic House member Joaquin Castro discounts that idea.

“It would take so much time to go through and vote on each of the promotions that you would wipe out the time needed for just about every other kind of legislative vote for the remainder of the year, at least,” he said.

As of Aug. 7, more than 300 officers general and flag officer nominations have been held up by the Senate. If the holds don’t lift by the end of the year, nearly 650 of the more than 850 general and flag officer nominations will be affected, according to a Department of Defense official.