U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, speaks during a hearing before Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 28, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images
WASHINGTON — Despite top U.S. military retirements beginning in less than a month, Sen. Tommy Tuberville refuses to budge on his blockade of hundreds of armed services promotions in protest of the Pentagon’s reproductive care policy instituted after the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
The first-term Alabama Republican is provoking concern among his own party members as the highest-ranking U.S. Marine is set to retire July 10, and as Pentagon officials warn that the delay on nominations weakens military readiness. Those waiting in line include a new leader for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and a new top military adviser to the president.
“I’ve been having discussions with a variety of senators on that topic, to kind of let him have a vote, but also to start moving noms, too,” GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, who sits on the Senate Committee on the Armed Services, told States Newsroom.
Tuberville is insisting that the administration and Democrats who control the Senate bring a standalone bill to the floor for a vote on a Department of Defense policy that allows leave and travel allowances for service members stationed in states where abortion is banned or severely restricted.
The senator this week reportedly refused an offer by GOP colleague Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa to include her proposal to prohibit the policy as part of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, Congress’ annual bill to reauthorize the military’s spending and operations.
Ernst’s office did not respond to multiple inquiries about the negotiation. Ernst, a leading voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee, served as a U.S. Army Reserves company commander in Kuwait and Iraq in the early 2000s and retired as a lieutenant colonel after 23 years.
Tuberville’s staff pointed States Newsroom to recent comments the senator — whom they refer to as “Coach” — made to reporters in early June.
“Let’s vote on a standalone (bill). I don’t want to mess around with NDAA,” the former Auburn University football coach said. ” As I’ve told the Department of Defense, make a bill up, send it over here, let’s vote on it. And whatever happens, happens. If they lose, they go back to the old policy. If they win, we go on with life. I mean, that’s what we do over here.”
Tuberville has been blocking the nominations — which have grown to more than 200 — for several months.
In March, Tuberville told States Newsroom that he intended to “work it out” with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
Tuberville made the promise to smooth things over with Austin just hours after the top Pentagon official testified during a budget hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the obstruction “actually creates a ripple effect through the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be.”
“The effects are absolutely critical in terms of the impact on the force,” Austin told Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island on March 28.
“This is one of the busiest and most complex times we’ve seen lately. We see a war, the largest conflict in Europe since World War II. We see an aggressive China operating in the Indo-Pacific. We see Iranian-backed elements going after our troops. And there are a number of things happening globally that indicate we could be in a contest on any given day,” he said.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said he’s hearing concerns from military generals.
“I know that various members from both parties have spoken to (Tuberville) about it. I examined General (Eric) Smith, who is a nominee for Commandant Marine Corps and asked him that question point blank, I said, ‘Is this compromising national security?’ And he ultimately said yes,” King said.
Among the hundreds of blocked nominees — positions the Senate has historically approved unanimously in large groups — is the replacement for Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, who is set to retire in October.
“You know, people can make their points. We’re going to have amendments on this abortion issue at the committee, and perhaps on the floor. So Senator Tuberville has all kinds of opportunities to try to convince his colleagues that this is bad policy and should be reversed. Compromising national security should not be one of those methods,” King said.
Other senators, meanwhile, are rallying behind Tuberville’s blockade.
“I think most people believe he deserves a vote,” said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, referring to Tuberville.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said he’s not aware of any coordinated efforts among the conference to convince Tuberville otherwise.
“I support his holds,” he said.
Naval Academy change of command
Tuberville’s play to hold up the nominees is a strategy used by members in the upper chamber to signal opposition to a nomination or proposal.
Ultimately, the Senate majority leader has the power to decide to honor a hold and for how long.
“We’re going to try to get as many nominees done as we can,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told States Newsroom Tuesday in the hallway after a floor vote.
Schumer’s office has not responded to multiple inquiries over months on how the leader plans to address the holds.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland on Thursday motioned for unanimous consent to move the nomination of Rear Admiral Yvette M. Davids before the induction of the incoming class on June 29. Davids is the nominee to lead the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis following the retirement of Vice Admiral Sean Buck.
“The last time a Naval Academy Superintendent did not have a summer change of command was over 59 years in 1964 when the incumbent Superintendent had a heart attack that resulted in early retirement,” according to a statement from Cardin’s office.
Tuberville responded on the floor: “I want to be clear about this because my Democratic colleagues have been spreading a little bit of disinformation. I am not blocking anyone from getting confirmed. I am not blocking a single vote. I am only blocking unanimous consent. If Democrats want to vote on these nominees one at a time, I am all for it and will probably vote for them.”
Schumer faces the issue of scarce floor time, and bringing nominees individually could “ground (the Senate) to a halt,” said Michael Thorning, director of structural democracy for the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Schumer, or any Senate leader, must also consider the risk of future gamesmanship, Thorning said in April.
“Not wanting to encourage or incentivize future bad behavior by not honoring the hold, Senate leaders often exhibit forbearance and are willing to let the hold remain because they don’t want that senator to be more obstructionist,” Thorning said.
“The Senate is what game theorists would call a repeated game. You know, the majority leader, the minority leader, the other senators know that they will sort of continually be engaging in this legislative process with each other, and therefore, you are constantly calibrating your decisions against the consideration that you will, in the future, need to consider the impact on how the senator is going to behave,” he continued.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that “senators should not play politics.”
“They should not play politics with our military assistance, with our military readiness, and with our military family,” she said when asked by reporters about the holds.
Aftermath of the fall of Roe v. Wade
The Biden administration ushered in the policy in February to support service members’ travel for “non-covered reproductive health care.”
One year ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down federal protections for abortion, triggering a patchwork of state-by-state regulations, where in some abortion remains legal and in others such services are effectively banned.
Roughly 80,000 female service members are stationed in locations without or severely restricted access to non-covered reproductive health care, like elective abortions, according to a September 2022 report published by the think tank RAND.
“Almost 1 in 5 of our troops are women, and they don’t get a chance to choose where they are stationed,” Austin testified in March.
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