Smith, who had served as assistant commandant since 2021, assumed the role of acting commandant upon the retirement in July of Commandant Gen. David Berger.
The White House in May picked Smith as the official replacement for Berger. But Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, has refused to provide unanimous consent to batches of military nominees ― the standard process for confirming the leaders.
As acting commandant, Smith has had almost all the same authorities as a Senate-confirmed commandant.
Still, he couldn’t issue the commandant’s long-term planning guidance. He couldn’t live in the Home of the Commandants or bear the title commandant. His official title remained “assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.”
Perhaps the biggest disruption in the office of the commandant caused by the leadership vacancy was that Smith was serving in the Corps’ No. 1 and No. 2 positions at the same time — and that apparently hasn’t changed.
The nominee to replace Smith as assistant commandant, Lt. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, is still awaiting confirmation by the Senate. In response to a Marine Corps Times question about whether Smith could appoint an acting assistant, Maj. Joshua Larson, a spokesman for Smith, declined on Wednesday to make any statements on the impending confirmation.
Without a deputy, Smith said Sept. 6, he has ended up with a “not sustainable” schedule that doesn’t leave him enough hours in the day to sleep.
“I don’t mind breaking my own back,” Smith said. “It’s just, I have to make good decisions.”
Tuberville initiated his blockade in protest of a Pentagon policy that covers travel expenses and paid leave for service members who travel out of state to seek abortions — a policy he and many other Republican lawmakers see as violating a law barring the use of federal funds for abortions. The Defense Department has said the policy is part of “taking care of our people, ensuring their health and well-being, and ensuring the Force remains ready and resilient.”
Before Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, hadn’t begun the time-intensive process of holding individual votes on nominees to get around the blockade. But on Tuesday night, Tuberville signaled his intention of forcing a vote on one nominee: Smith, whom the Alabama senator previously had said he looked forward to supporting.
On Wednesday, Schumer announced his intention to hold a vote on three top military nominees, including Smith.
Schumer said Wednesday, “Due to the extraordinary circumstances of Sen. Tuberville’s reckless decisions, Democrats will take action. It’s not the path a vast majority of senators on either side of the aisle want to go down, but Sen. Tuberville is forcing us to face his obstruction head-on.”
The vote for Smith followed, with 96 senators, including Tuberville, voting to confirm him and none voting against him.
It’s unclear when Smith formally will assume the role of commandant. Spokespeople for Smith and the Department of the Navy didn’t immediately respond to Marine Corps Times’ inquiry.
Tuberville said Wednesday he plans to continue his hold on the more than 300 military nominees who remain unconfirmed.
“If Democrats want to complain then they should look in the mirror,” he said. “I don’t control the Senate floor — the Democrats do.”
For now, general officers nominated to lead the Marine Corps’ Reserve; plans, policies and operations; the Pacific-based III Marine Expeditionary Force; programs and resources; aviation division; and more are awaiting confirmation, according to Pentagon news releases.
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlos Ruiz, the top enlisted Marine, has been in his role since August. As an enlisted leader, he didn’t require Senate confirmation.
At the California-based I Marine Expeditionary Force, made up of approximately 48,000 service members, a major general is still at the helm in an acting capacity, rather than a more senior lieutenant general, following the retirement of the force’s leader in August.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.