A prominent Republican senator is threatening to hold up all Defense Department nominations over senior leaders’ decision to provide leave and travel expenses to help troops access abortion services.
The move comes as senior Pentagon officials express concerns over several unfilled leadership spots, including the assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, a key post in recruiting and retention efforts, and deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, a key post for overseeing stocks of arms sent to Ukraine.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville — a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — said the move is designed to force military leaders to provide a reason for the decision, which he says appears politically motivated. A briefing on the issue was scheduled for last month but canceled.
“This unprofessional behavior does not reflect well upon your office or the Department of Defense,” Tuberville wrote. “Unfortunately I have come to expect this sort of delay and obfuscation from the Pentagon.”
A staffer from Tuberville’s office said the senator will lift his hold after the briefing has taken place and all questions about the policy have been adequately answered.
At least nine senior Defense Department nominees are awaiting a full chamber vote for confirmation, including Lester Martinez-Lopez, President Joe Biden’s pick to be assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, and Radha Iyengar Plumb, the nominee for the acquisition and sustainment post.
In addition, the nominations of Nickolas Guertin to be assistant secretary of the Navy and Ronald Keohane to be assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs are pending before the Armed Services Committee.
The Pentagon’s legislative affairs team has been lobbying for the nominations to proceed at least since lawmakers returned to Washington following the midterm elections.
Early last month, Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters that Congress was lagging the rate at which it confirmed Pentagon nominees during the Trump administration, and that it was hindering national security.
“We’re a bit hamstrung here, and so we urge the Senate to confirm these nominees because they play a critical role in managing recruitment, our budget, and the physical health of the force,” Singh said. “We believe these nominees are fully capable, and they have bipartisan support. I mean, they were voted out of the [armed services] committee.”
Tuberville’s hold amounts to yet another headache for Pentagon leaders hoping to fill leadership vacancies. They have already dealt with delays and frustration over confirmation votes because of other holds, including multiple blocks by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who has demanded resignations and firings of senior administration staffers because of mistakes made in the 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal.
Hawley has said he won’t budge on nominees until the Senate Armed Services Committee hosts a hearing on Afghanistan, a move likely to take place in the Republican-controlled House next year but not in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
On Tuesday, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla, said he would also hold all defense nominees over the issue of mandatory military vaccinations.
The Biden administration’s handling of abortion access issues in recent months has infuriated Republican lawmakers and lead to threats of defunding government agencies or stalling operations until the moves are repealed.
In October, Austin released a memo saying senior leaders needed to “ensure that our service members and their families can access reproductive health care” no matter where they are stationed.
Concerns over troops’ access to abortion services have grown since the Supreme Court in June overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Since then, more than two dozen states have moved to ban or limit the procedure, with many of those cases currently the subject of legal fights.
Austin’s memo allows pregnant servicemembers to take leave to travel out of state for an abortion if they cannot legally have the procedure in the state where they are stationed. The department will also reimburse costs for that travel.
Tuberville called the timing of the decision — announced just a few weeks before the midterm elections — “suspicious.”
Though the positions awaiting for confirmed leaders have been filled by senior civilians on an acting basis, Singh said confirmed political appointees are better able to guide the operations of the offices.
If the nominees are not confirmed before the end of the current Congress, Biden would have to renominate them. The Senate is expected to wrap up its work for the year by Dec. 16, but could return for a few more days of legislative business before the end of the month.
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.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.