Hundreds of military promotions and confirmations are stalled in the Senate over one Republican senator’s objection to the Defense Department’s abortion policies, and even more could pile up in coming weeks if a compromise isn’t found soon.
For the last month, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has blocked consideration of all pending Defense Department confirmations by the full chamber over his opposition to “taxpayer-funded abortions for the military and their family members.” In a press statement on Wednesday and a floor speech on Thursday, he vowed keep up the pressure until the policy is changed.
While nomination fights over leadership posts are common in the chamber, the decision to include other normally routine military promotions has drawn extra ire from Senate Democrats and concerns from Pentagon officials. The showdown has the potential to snarl military leadership moves across the force as more and more names are sent to the Senate in coming weeks.
As of Thursday, more than 150 flag and general officer promotions were affected by the move, along with several more civilian leadership posts.
Tuberville spoke with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier this week about his concerns but vowed to maintain the hold until the policy — which provides leave time and stipends for troops and qualified family members to travel across state lines to receive abortion services — is fully rescinded. Defense Department leaders have not expressed any willingness to do that.
Senate Democrats can override Tuberville’s holds, but it would require time-consuming parliamentary procedures on the chamber floor, something leaders have hoped to avoid.
On Thursday, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., blasted Tuberville’s move in a floor speech following another failed attempt to push through the military nominations.
“I don’t respect this idea that we can’t move past this blanket hold on every single flag officer that’s up for promotion, just because one senator doesn’t agree with the majority position [on abortion] that is reflected in the Department of Defense’s modest rules,” he said.
But Tuberville called that criticism hypocritical, noting that Bennet earlier this year threatened to delay the confirmation of several nominees over the decision to move U.S. Space Command from Colorado to Alabama. The issue was resolved before any votes were affected.
“The American taxpayers are on the hook to cover non-chargeable paid time off and travel costs for abortions for our military and their families,” Tuberville said. “Nobody voted for this. This goes beyond the law.”
Holds on military nominees have been a point of frustration for Defense Department leaders in recent years. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., placed a blanket hold on all Pentagon nominees in 2021 over unanswered questions about the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also held up two civilian Pentagon nominees over a dispute with the Interior Department regarding a mine project in his state.
And Tuberville held up some military confirmation votes late last year over Defense Department delays in providing him information about the new abortion travel policy, only to relent just before the end of the session in December.
The issue is likely to be a focal point of Austin’s appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee next Tuesday, to discuss the White House’s fiscal 2024 budget request. As a member of the committee, Tuberville will be among the senators directly questioning the defense secretary and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley on a host of topics.
Reporter Bryant Harris contributed to this story.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.