WASHINGTON – Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s controversial block on promotions for more than 300 senior Pentagon officers over a Pentagon policy on abortion has been met with indifference among his Republican colleagues, a USA TODAY survey has found.
Democrats and Pentagon leaders maintain that Tuberville’s nine-month hold on military promotions — a stand he has taken because he opposes Defense Department abortion policy — has damaged national security by preventing generals and admirals from taking key commands. They say it has created hardships for military families and injected politics into a nomination process that for decades was little more than a formality. An independent analyst said the delays stall development of top military leaders and will prompt seasoned officers to quit.
Tuberville — a former Auburn and University of Mississippi football coach who is serving his first term in the Senate after winning election in 2021- — opposes the Pentagon’s policy on abortion and reproductive health, which was created after the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion last year. The policy, which Tuberville says is illegal, allows for time off and travel expenses for reproductive health care, including abortion, for troops and their dependents in states where it is not available. The Pentagon pays for abortion only when the mother’s life is in danger or when pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
“The Pentagon’s woke leaders are injecting left-wing politics into our most sacred institution and driving away a generation of patriots from recruitment,” Steven Stafford, Tuberville’s spokesperson, told USA TODAY in a statement.
Republicans in the Senate don’t seem to disagree. In interviews, some of Tuberville’s colleagues told USA TODAY they feel strongly that the Alabama lawmaker is well within his rights as a senator to block nomination hearings, despite the risks it may pose.
With a few notable exceptions like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the reaction among Tuberville’s GOP colleagues has been a collective shrug act his tactic. Many lawmakers, when asked by USA TODAY, declined to say they supported Tuberville. Instead, the blamed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for failing to seek confirmation hearings for the officers — a time-consuming process that Democrats have rejected.
“I think there ought to be some kind of negotiation or discussion going on to see if there’s not some compromise or meeting of the mind,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told USA TODAY last week. “…Find some middle ground and move on, but I don’t want to see our military continue to be affected as it is.”
The stakes reach the pinnacle of the military’s command Sept. 30. That’s when Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retires as required by law. His successor, Air Force Gen. Charles Brown, the second African American officer selected for the military’s top job, will be left in limbo unless the impasse is broken.
The ripple effects extend down the chain of command, where vacant positions have been filled by officers without the authority to issue strategic guidance, make weapons-buying decisions, or simply move their families to new bases and enroll their children in schools.
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“It’s become chaotic,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chair of the Armed Services Committee, told USA TODAY. “Frankly, if someone came to us and said, ‘Listen, we have this scheme that would totally paralyze, or at least significantly disrupt the general staff and all of the significant officers in an adversary’s army.’ We’d say, ‘Great.'”
The Armed Services Committee considers about 50,000 nominations a year for civilian and military officials. Most often, nominations are approved in bunches by what is known as unanimous consent. Tuberville has blocked promotions for the most senior generals and admirals.
The effects stretch around the globe. At the Pentagon, Tuberville suggested that Milley could stay on the job after Sept. 30. Federal law prevents that, so, Adm. Christopher Grady, the vice chairman, will have to cover both his and chairman’s jobs. In the Persian Gulf, the 5th Fleet awaits a new commander as Iran continues to harass commercial shipping.
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Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters this week that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “will continue to speak out and urge Senator Tuberville to lift his holds that are putting our readiness and our national security at risk.”
Tuberville’s disruption to military careers and families has exacted a toll, said Albert Robbert, an adjunct researcher at the nonpartisan think tank RAND Corp.
“Clearly, we are seeing a compounding of the disruptions to organizational management, senior officer development and management, and the interests and welfare of senior leaders’ family members,” Robbert said. “It would not be surprising to see some promising leaders retire out of frustration.”
‘Any senator’s got the right to do what he or she wants to do’
To Tuberville, the standoff he has taken over abortion is a win with his GOP colleagues.
“Obviously, some people don’t support it, but they don’t say anything,” Tuberville told reporters on Capitol Hill last week. “But I’ve gotten a lot of support. I’ll put it that way.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is one lawmaker who falls in Tuberville’s corner.
“I think this is much ado about nothing,” she told USA TODAY on Capitol Hill last week. “There are ways that other people can address this and should, instead of letting this sit on Sen. Tuberville’s shoulders alone. “
Wyoming Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis agreed. If the military changes its policies on abortion, Tuberville would end his blockade on military holds, she said.
Others, like Republican Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Mike Braun of Indiana, told USA TODAY that Tuberville is not out of bounds by blocking military confirmations.
“I think any senator’s got the right to do what he or she wants to do,” Braun said, “and he obviously think that’s important, and I acknowledge his right to do that.”
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of few GOP senators who has publicly spoken out against Tuberville’s hold, said he would like to see a formal vote on the abortion policy to settle the matter so the chamber could move on with the military promotions.
‘Just bring them up for a vote’
Other Senate Republicans shifted the blame away from Tuberville, instead targeting Schumer for not bringing separate votes for each military nomination to the floor.
As of August, it would take the Senate nearly 690 hours, or three months of full-day sessions, to approve each nomination individually, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Numerous military nominations are usually taken up as a group by unanimous consent, a process that moves along quickly and allows for multiple nominations to pass at the same time. But when a senator objects to unanimous consent, like in the case with Tuberville, a hold is placed on nominations where the Senate must consider and vote on each nomination separately − an arduous process that takes up much more floor time.
But Senate Republicans told USA TODAY the added floor time is not an excuse for Schumer keep confirmations off the floor.
“It’s past time for Sen. Schumer to schedule these votes and quit pretending Democrats aren’t in control of the Senate floor schedule,” Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., said in a statement to USA TODAY.
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And a retiring chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff isn’t putting added pressure or a time crunch on moving forward with nominations, some Republicans told USA TODAY.
“You could have a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs tonight because all it takes is a motion to move to it and a vote up or down,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., added, telling reporters on Capitol Hill last week.
Stafford, Tuberville’s spokesperson, said in a statement to USA TODAY the Alabama lawmaker “has every confidence” that vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Grady will “do the job and advise the president well” handling the duties of his position as well as Milley’s after the chair retires.
Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., concluded the quickest way for confirmations to move forward is for either Schumer to schedule votes on nominees or for Secretary Austin to rescind the Defense Department’s abortion travel policy.
“Secretary Austin could literally fix this with the stroke of a pen,” he said in a statement.
Tuberville’s campaign fundraising spiked after he announced the hold on military promotions in February. He raised $10,916 in January, with that figure jumping to $90,558 in February, according to Federal Election Commission records. For the first six months of 2023, Tuberville raised about $495,000.
Contributing: Erin Mansfield