Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R) is refusing to back down from his decision to hold up more than 300 nonpolitical military promotions, despite growing pressure from Senate Republican colleagues and leaders.
Fellow Republican senators have criticized Tuberville’s strategy as a “mistake,” urging him to narrow his holds to Biden nominees who make policy decision and allow stalled nonpolitical military personnel to continue advancing in their careers.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) voiced his misgivings about Tuberville’s aggressive tactics Tuesday.
“I think holding these non-policymaking career military [officials] who can’t be involved in politics at all is a mistake, and we continue to work on that and I hope at some point we can get it clear,” he told reporters.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the vice chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and ranking member of its defense subcommittee, urged Tuberville on Tuesday to limit his holds to policymaking positions.
“I’m very concerned about it and hope that Sen. Tuberville will reconsider and narrow his focus to only those individuals who have policy responsibilities,” Collins said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has approved 273 promotions that are now stuck on the floor because of Tuberville’s hold, according to a Senate aide.
The Department of Defense has sent a total of 319 nominations, but the Armed Services panel still has to act on about 40 of them.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) warned over the weekend that Tuberville’s holds are “paralyzing the Department of Defense.”
“The idea that one man in the Senate can hold this up for months — I understand maybe promotions, but nominations,” McCaul said.
“I think that is a national security problem and a national security issue. And I really wish he would reconsider this,” he warned.
But Tuberville is standing firm and says he will only release the holds if the Biden administration reverses its policy of paying for service members to travel across state lines to obtain abortions.
The Alabama senator shook his head to indicate “no” when asked Tuesday whether he’s willing to negotiate a compromise with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin or the White House.
“No, we’ve going down for seven months,” he said when asked if he’s open to a compromise on abortion policy. “They’re not into it either. There’s no give-and-take here, either side.”
Tuberville also dismissed the prospect of merely voting on the floor for a bill sponsored by Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and John Kennedy (R-La.) to restrict the secretary of Defense’s ability to provide paid leave and transportation for service members seeking an abortion.
Instead, he wants the Pentagon to reverse its policy and then for Congress to vote on the issue.
If Democrats can’t muster the votes to implement the Pentagon’s new policy through legislation — which they likely wouldn’t be able to do — then service members wouldn’t be able to receive leave and reimbursement for transportation costs incurred by traveling across state lines to an abortion provider.
“Move it back,” he said of the Defense Department’s abortion policy. “Move it back to what it was.”
“And then send over what you want to vote on and let’s vote it up or down, whichever way it goes. If they move it back and we get a vote, that constitutes no holds,” he said. “And then let the vote go as it may.”
He argued that Austin didn’t have the legal authority to change the Pentagon’s policy with “a memo,” referring to the Oct. 20, 2022, memo signed by the secretary of Defense to establish travel and transportation allowances and to facilitate access to reproductive health care not available within the local area of a service member’s duty station.
Biden administration officials note the Department of Justice issued an opinion Oct. 3, 2022, saying U.S. law only restricts the use of federal funds to “perform abortions” but does not prohibit the use of funds to pay expenses such as per diem or travel expenses.
Anxieties over the standoff are mounting as the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley prepares to step down once his term expires at the end of the month.
Biden has nominated Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown to replace Milley, but he has been caught up in Tuberville’s hold.
The Army, Navy and Marine Corps are already operating with acting chiefs.
Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters Tuesday that certain national security “authorities” can “can only be exercised by a Senate-confirmed leader.”
Senate Republicans including Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who has a good relationship with Austin, and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) are urging Tuberville to negotiate a compromise to allow the stalled nominees to advance.
“I have been working quietly with as many people as possible, all the key players on what that potential compromise could be,” Sullivan said Tuesday.
Romney has floated the idea of prohibiting the use of federal money to pay for the leave and transportation costs of service members who travel across state lines to obtain abortions after 16 weeks of pregnancy.
“I do think there need to be discussions between the two parties, Tuberville and Austin. They ought to sit down, have a private meeting and look for some common ground,” Romney said.
“One suggestion I’ve made is to have the secretary of Defense say, ‘We’ll stop paying for any travel associated with abortion over 16 weeks of pregnancy. In exchange, you, Tommy [Tuberville], will agree to release these [nominees] for a vote,” he said. “That kind of a compromise, I think, is the way you get this resolved.”
Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) have also been involved in trying to broker a deal between Tuberville and the administration.
“We’re still talking and trying to figure a solution,” Cornyn said. “Sen. Sinema is working hard on it.”
But Schumer on Tuesday dismissed the prospect of negotiating a deal with Tuberville to scale down or reverse part of the Pentagon’s abortion policy to advance the stalled military promotions.
“Look, the bottom line is this is a Republican problem. Don’t pawn it off on us. It was created by Tuberville solely himself, and it’s up to the Republicans to put pressure on him to back off, plain and simple. We’re already seeing that pressure mount,” Schumer said. “The pressure is mounting. Tuberville should back off.”
He noted out that former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, criticized Tuberville for using military families as “political pawns.”
“We don’t need to be using military families as political pawns,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union” this week. “That’s a mistake. … The military members and families — they sacrifice enough. They don’t need to be a pawn in Congress. But look at the political games that continue to play.”
Asked about Sullivan’s and Romney’s calls for the Defense Department to make some concessions to Tuberville, Schumer declared: “It’s absurd, absurd.”
“It’s caused by Tuberville, solely by Tuberville. He has to back off. They should be telling Tuberville, and maybe they are privately, that he should back off,” he said.
Sullivan said efforts to advance possible compromises to Schumer, Austin and other senior Biden officials have failed to gain any traction.
“There’s not a lot of sense of compromise on the other side. That is troubling,” he said. “I asked some very prominent Democrat senators, ‘Hey, why don’t you run that up the flagpole?’ … There doesn’t seem to be interest in that regard.
“I do have concerns that the longer this lingers the more it impacts families,” he said. “Ninety-eight percent of the holds I’ve seen in my career … they’re dealt with through compromise.”
He and other Republicans argue that Schumer could alleviate the backlog of stalled military promotions by bringing some of them to the floor for votes, a time-consuming process.
But Democrats argue that it would set a bad precedent to hold votes on dozens of nonpolitical military appointments. They also say it’s a bad look to hold votes on top-ranking officials while leaving lower-ranking officers in limbo.
“We don’t mind voting on people. We object to voting on a few of the top brass and punishing everybody else,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “As one of the top brass, you wouldn’t say, ‘Great, vote me out and punish everybody else.’”