Sen. Tommy Tuberville is rejecting off-ramps and advice from more senior Republicans to end his hold on military promotions, even as Pentagon officials step up their warnings that the maneuver is compromising America’s security.
The Alabama lawmaker’s colleagues have approached him in recent weeks to broker a compromise that would allow roughly 250 senior officer promotions to clear the Senate. The hold threatens to ensnare President Joe Biden’s pick for Joint Chiefs chair, Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown, along with others preparing to rotate in as senior military leaders prepare to retire.
Tuberville first imposed the blocks in protest of the Defense Department’s new policy to pay travel costs for service members seeking abortion or other reproductive care. He claims that decision from late last year cuts against the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, and vows to maintain the holds until Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin changes course or the senator gets a straightforward vote on the issue.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), first elected to the Senate in 2002 and formerly Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s No. 2, said he has spoken with Tuberville to “work with him to help him achieve his goal” when the Senate considers the annual defense policy bill. Cornyn indicated that he agreed with Tuberville’s stance on the Pentagon policy and was not pressuring him, insisting it was Tuberville’s choice on whether to drop his hold.
“Obviously, with the [National Defense Authorization Act] coming up, there’s some opportunities there to have some more debate and votes on that and for Congress either to grant or to withhold that authority rather than to have the Department of Defense just assume it has the authority,” Cornyn said.
But last week Tuberville said he would not debate the issue as part of the fiscal 2024 NDAA, calling for a “clean” defense-policy bill. Cornyn noted that the NDAA is a reliable legislative vehicle, even for controversial measures. “The NDAA was passed, I believe, 61 years in a row, and I think we need to pass it again this year,” Cornyn said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) aims to pass a bill, S. 822 (118), that effectively neuters the Pentagon’s policy. She offered Tuberville a deal in which her measure would receive a vote as part of the NDAA process in exchange for his lifting the holds. But the Alabaman rejected that trade, according to a Senate Republican aide who was granted anonymity to discuss the interaction.
“Ernst is laser-focused on getting her bill to block the Pentagon’s ongoing war on the unborn across the finish line,” an Ernst spokesperson said, without confirming the exchange with Tuberville. Punchbowl News first reported on the development with Ernst.
In an interview Wednesday morning, Tuberville said he would drop his holds if Ernst’s bill came up for a vote on its own and outside the process of any other bills. “That would be good,” he said, reiterating his opposition to a vote on the measure as part of the NDAA. However, Tuberville said he is pessimistic that such a clean vote would ever come up on the Senate floor while it’s led by Democrats.
In a surprise move, the Senate Armed Services Committee plans to vote on Ernst’s bill next week during its closed-door deliberations on the defense bill, though the abortion bill will remain separate from the NDAA. According to an amended schedule, the committee will begin its closed-door deliberations on June 21 by marking up Ernst’s bill, and once they’ve finished will then consider the broader defense bill.
The move creates a potential avenue to diffuse the standoff by fast-tracking an abortion bill to the Senate floor. But it would first need to be approved by the Democratic majority, requiring a Democrat to break ranks. Beyond that, it’s unclear whether Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) would bring the measure up for a vote to break the stalemate.
But Tuberville, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said that a committee vote alone won’t satisfy his demands.
“A vote in committee? What does that do?” Tuberville asked about marking up Ernst’s bill.
Tuberville, who argues the Pentagon is flouting laws that bar taxpayers funds for most abortions, added that he wants the administration to pull back the policy, offer up legislation to codify it and see if it passes. Such legislation is highly unlikely to garner the supermajority needed to pass.
The failed attempts at finding a solution by fellow Republicans indicate that Tuberville won’t budge despite mounting pressure from allies and administration officials. McConnell told reporters last month he doesn’t agree with Tuberville’s tactics.
“I will keep my hold, I will keep it on, until the Pentagon follows the law or changes the law. It’s that simple. Those are the two conditions that would get me to drop the hold,” he said in a floor speech this month.
Senior military leaders have already developed workarounds as the impasse remains. Gen. David Berger, the outgoing commandant of the Marine Corps, recently sent out invitations to a “relinquishment of office ceremony” scheduled for July 10, allowing Gen. Eric Smith, Biden’s nominated replacement, to lead the Corps on a temporary basis.
Asked about the holds Tuesday during an Armed Services confirmation hearing, a panel on which Tuberville serves, Smith said “it will have an effect.”
“It certainly compromises our ability to be most ready,” he further responded to Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).
Tuberville can’t prevent nominees from being confirmed on his own. He and his Republican allies insist Schumer could hold additional procedural votes to get around the blockade, but doing so is impractical because the Senate must confirm hundreds of senior promotions this year. Schumer could also hold votes for individual nominees, such as those tapped for the Joint Chiefs, but doing so runs the risk of validating Tuberville’s approach.
Tuberville received a vote on a related push to scrap rules issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand abortion access. That proposal failed in April in a mostly party-line 48-51 vote. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a cosponsor of the bill, voted in favor while Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska broke ranks and opposed it.
Tuberville isn’t the only senator using existing authorities to block nominations.
J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) vowed Tuesday to halt Biden’s Department of Justice picks over the indictment of former President Donald Trump. Manchin is doing the same to Environmental Protect Act nominations because of the administration’s climate policies. And Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) similarly will keep any health-focused selections out of government until Biden’s team produces a plan to lower drug prices.
Lee Hudson contributed to this report.
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