Top defense officials are accusing Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville of compromising America’s national security by retaining control of approximately 300 military promotions, upping the stakes in an abortion policy battle that shows no signs of abating. Tuberville dismissed the criticism, pledging that he will not back down. “We’re going to be in a holding pattern for a long time,” he said if the Pentagon continues to pay for travel when a military member travels out of state for abortion or other reproductive care.
It’s a typical Washington stalemate with ramifications across the country, effectively putting servicemembers’ lives on hold as they await what has traditionally been routine Senate confirmation for their promotions. Frustrated, the secretaries of the Navy, Air Force, and Army wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, claiming that Tuberville’s actions were not only unjust to military commanders and their families, but were also “putting our national security at risk.”
They pointed out that three military branches — the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps — do not have Senate-confirmed leaders. They wrote that those jobs are being carried out without the full range of legal authorities required to make judgments that will maintain the United States’ military edge. Tuberville was charged by Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro of “playing Russia roulette with the very lives of our servicemembers by denying them the opportunity to actually have the most experienced combat leaders in those positions to lead them in times of peace and in times of combat.”
In their op-ed, the secretaries predicted that protracted uncertainty and political disputes over military nominations “will have a corrosive effect on the force.”
“The generals and admirals who will be leading our forces a decade from now are colonels and captains today,” they wrote. “They are watching this spectacle and may conclude that their service in our military’s highest ranks is no longer valued by members of Congress or, by extension, the American public.”
Tuberville clashed with the three defense secretaries. “If you’re going to run your mouth in the paper,” he remarked, they should have talked to him first.
“I have not heard from any of them,” he explained.
“You would think they would be calling, ‘Coach, let’s work this out.’ Zero,” Tuberville remarked if they were truly concerned about readiness at such an important time in history.
However, several attempts have been made by both the department’s top civilian leaders and its top uniformed troops to show Tuberville how the holds are causing harm, according to a senior military official and a defense official. According to a senior military official acquainted with Tuberville’s earlier talks, despite addressing the senator about the real-world and personal issues that his hold has produced for servicemembers, Tuberville has not appeared willing to reconsider his position.
Tuberville stated that he visited six states during the August vacation and received “not one negative comment from anyone.” I had several queries, but no unfavorable feedback.”
He emphasized that he would withdraw his hold on military appointments only once the Pentagon reversed the policy put in place by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in October, after the Supreme Court overturned almost 50-year-old constitutional protections for abortion.
Once the Pentagon returns to pre-memo standards on travel reimbursement, Democratic leaders may put any alternative policy up for a Senate vote, he added.
“Move it back,” Tuberville remarked, referring to the current reimbursement program. “And then have them write up what they want to vote on, and I’ll accept whatever outcome they come up with.” The holds have been removed. Let’s get started.”
Tuberville’s blockage is distinctive in that it affects hundreds of military nominations and promotions. To get around the hold, Democratic leaders would have to hold roll call votes on each one, a cumbersome and time-consuming process in a body that already struggles to complete basic work.
The Senate has long grouped military nominations and approved them by voice vote, avoiding lengthy roll calls and sparing vital floor time for other critical subjects.
However, while this is unusual, Tuberville’s office notes that lawmakers from both parties have threatened to halt military advancements in the past. The amount of time that has lasted with Tuberville is simply unprecedented.
Defense Secretary’s Ongoing Dialogue with Tuberville on Nomination Holds and Healthcare Policy
Austin has called Tuberville three times about the holds, the most recent on July 18, and the Pentagon’s legislative affairs staff is still working with him, according to a defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. In addition, in July, Defense Department employees met with Senate Armed Services Committee staff to discuss the intricacies of the DOD’s reproductive healthcare policy.
To date, the Pentagon has not published data on the number of military members who have used the new policy to obtain abortions, citing privacy concerns. It highlights that the new regulation was implemented in reaction to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which created a situation in which federal troops stationed in one state may not have access to reproductive procedures that are available in other states.
If the standoff continues, as many as 650 nominations could be jeopardized by the end of the year. However, Republican leaders are not openly urging Tuberville to cease his detentions.
“I’m hoping that the conversations that are taking place this week, as well as the conversations that Senator Tuberville has had with military leadership, will lead to a breakthrough at some point,” said Sen. John Thune, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican.
According to the Pentagon, there are 98 promotions on hold in the Air Force, 91 in the Army, 86 in the Navy, 18 in the Marines, and 8 in the Space Force. Some Republicans have recommended that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., hold votes on the most important nominations. Schumer, though, opposed that strategy.
“The bottom line is that Republicans created this problem, and it is up to them to solve it,” Schumer added.
Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said he would like Schumer to schedule a vote on the Pentagon reimbursement policy, but that if it fails, which it almost certainly would, “it’s now time to get these people promoted.”
“I’d like to vote to repeal the policy, but I’m not going to stymie the military indefinitely,” Graham added.