GOP senators grow weary of Tuberville abortion stalemate on defense nominees

Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) prolonged hold on the promotions of Pentagon officials is rattling fellow Republicans, who worry the potential cost to national security is starting to outweigh whatever political points Tuberville may be scoring against the Biden administration.  

Tuberville on Tuesday blocked an effort to advance 184 military promotions and vowed not to back down anytime soon. The Alabama senator began holding up military promotions in February to protest the Department of Defense’s policy to give service members up to three weeks of leave to obtain abortions or undergo fertility treatments and reimburse their travel costs.  

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Some Republicans thought Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) might intervene in the standoff upon his return to the Senate, but he hasn’t shown any inclination to do so.

Senators usually only put blanket holds on nominees to make a point and then withdraw them after a short while. But Tuberville has frozen promotions at the Pentagon for weeks, and some Republicans worry he is injecting politics into promotions of nonpolitical career military officials.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the senior Republican on the Senate’s Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said she is concerned about Tuberville blocking the advancement of nonpartisan military officials instead of holding up President Biden’s politically appointees, which is a more usual form of Senate protest.  

“I would prefer that Sen. Tuberville focus his holds on political appointees. They’re the ones who make the policy. I think that would be an equally effective and better approach, but obviously, the approach he chooses is up to him,” she said Wednesday.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) arrives for an all-Senators briefing on Wednesday, April 19, 2023 at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.(Greg Nash)

Other Senate Republicans privately voiced their misgivings about Tuberville’s controversial strategy, which has stalled the promotions and pay raises for scores of military officials. 

One Republican senator warned the freezing of military promotions across the board could undermine military readiness at a time when the nation faces serious security threats from China. 

“Our country faces significant challenges, we have a significant adversary that is threatening our country’s national security and well-being, and we need a full team in place,” the lawmaker said. “The circumstances we find ourselves in is a real threat to the future of our country. It’s not a time for us to be divided; it’s also not a time to not have all of our players on the field.” 

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The senator argued that promoting officers to new positions is critical to the nation’s defense because “people are a huge component of how well we perform at anything, certainly in national security.”  

A second Republican senator complained that Tuberville doesn’t appear to have an exit strategy because the Biden administration doesn’t appear inclined to reverse the Pentagon’s abortion policy, and Democrats think the Alabama senator will have to capitulate at some point and allow the promotions to go through.  

“He’s taken a hostage that you can’t shoot,” the senator said of Tuberville’s hold.  

Asked what can be done to persuade Tuberville to release his hold, the GOP lawmaker said: “I do not know, but I’m told he’s very comfortable with where he’s at.”  

Tuberville stuck fast to his hold on Tuesday when he blocked a series of requests by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to move all 184 stalled promotions.  

“[Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin could end the policy today, and I would lift my hold. Secretary Austin has chosen not to do that,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday while objecting to Warren’s request.  

“This is the fourth time the Democrats have come to the floor to try to break this hold. I’ll come down here as many times as it takes,” he declared.  

Warren later expressed her frustration over the floor exchange.  

“Sen. Tuberville’s blanket hold on all military promotions is unlike anything that has ever happened in U.S. history. He’s holding up people who have already qualified for a promotion, a pay increase and new post, and he’s preventing all of that. It is insulting to our military,” she told The Hill.  

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) leaves an all-Senators briefing on Wednesday, April 19, 2023 at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Greg Nash)

Tuberville told The Hill on Wednesday that he would be willing to relent if given a vote on the Senate floor on a proposal to strictly bar the Defense Department from spending any taxpayer money to help service members obtain abortions. 

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“That’s what we’re waiting on,” he said. “Either put it in the [National Defense Authorization Act] or do a standalone [bill].” 

“As long as there’s no money spent by the taxpayers [for abortions],” he added.  

Other Republican senators expressed concern over the stalemate and urged Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to negotiate with Tuberville to break the deadlock.  

“I think that Sen. Tuberville should get the vote he’s requesting, and that will allow everyone to be on record and for us to move on,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.).  

Young said he doesn’t think the delayed promotions are having much of an impact on military readiness “at this time,” but he advised that it “certainly needs to get resolved so it doesn’t linger too much longer.”  

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another pro-defense Republican, said he was initially “concerned” by Tuberville’s hold on promotions, but he then felt somewhat reassured when he found out his colleague might drop his opposition in exchange for a vote.  

“At first, I was concerned, but now all he wants is a vote. I can’t believe they’re denying him a vote,” he said of Senate Democrats.  

But Schumer on Wednesday said he’s not inclined to give Tuberville a vote because it would set a bad precedent and likely incentivize other senators to put blanket holds on department nominees to win political concessions.  

“What Tommy Tuberville is doing is reckless — holding up the lives and the progress of men and women who have served in our military for a very, very long time. This is unique, what he is doing. If he does it and then everyone else does it, it’s going to lead to total chaos with the military and damage our national security, and we won’t stand for it,” he said.  

One Democratic aide pointed out that Tuberville got a vote this month on a resolution to reverse the policy adopted by the Veterans Affairs Department to provide abortion-related care to veterans in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade and still kept his hold on military promotions. It failed by a vote of 48 to 51.

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