Senate Democrats are not yet publicly discussing possible chamber rules changes to get around a Republican senator’s hold on more than 300 senior defense nominees, but insisted Tuesday that without relief soon the military could face severe consequences.
All senior military promotions and nominations have been on hold since late February, when Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., took procedural steps to block fast-track consideration of all Defense Department confirmation votes. Tuberville objects to the Defense Department’s abortion access policies, put in place in late 2022, which allow for leave time and travel stipends for troops to travel across state lines for access to abortion services.
On Tuesday, Democratic critics of the hold worked to literally put faces on the growing list of military members caught up in the political showdown. Outside the Capitol building, members of the group VoteVets — which has ties to the Democratic Party — set up posters with names and portraits of the hundreds of nominees being affected by Tuberville’s blockade
“The impact of teamwork in the military is critical,” said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, senior advisor to VoteVets. “We have a senator that we need to get turned around on this.”
A day earlier, leaders from the nonpartisan Veterans of Foreign Wars sent a letter to Tuberville asking him to drop the holds immediately “before we set the very dangerous precedent of harming American service members as leverage in Washington political battles.”
But Tuberville said Tuesday he is unmoved by the most recent flurry of criticism over his moves. He said he viewed the VoteVets display from afar and dismissed it as posturing by Democratic lawmakers.
“It’s just political talk,” he said. “I’ve got more support than they’ve probably got.”
Tuberville has insisted he won’t relent on his holds until the Pentagon rescinds its policy or until the House and Senate vote to approve the military abortion access rules.
Senate leaders counter that Tuberville lost a vote to dump the policy during the annual defense authorization bill debate earlier this year, and that he is punishing senior military members for personal political gain.
“Every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said our national security is jeopardized because of this,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at Tuesday’s VoteVets event. “Every single senior Department of Defense official — the Army, the Navy, the Air Force — they’ve all said the same thing. This is hurting national security.”
Chamber leaders could bring up each nominee for an individual vote, going around tradition of group confirmation of noncontroversial defense nominees. But last week, the Congressional Research Service said doing so would take about 689 hours to debate and vote on the nominees, a process that would take about 87 days under typical Senate work schedules.
Democrats could change chamber rules to speed up the process, but party leaders have been publicly reluctant to discuss such a move. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., on Tuesday acknowledged the idea is being discussed, but said he would prefer “bringing our Republican colleagues on board” to force a change by Tuberville.
Fellow committee member Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he would also prefer “a less drastic move” than a chamber rules change.
“The degree of disquiet among Republican senators is growing,” he said. “Some are saying it publicly, some are just saying it to us. But they have to exercise some discipline with him.”
Last week, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas — criticized Tuberville for “paralyzing” the military with his holds. A few other party members have offered similar concerns.
But Tuberville said he has not received any hard push from Senate leaders and does not believe any such pushback is coming.
The number of nominees caught up in the abortion fight is expected to double by the end of the year. That total includes Gen. C.Q. Brown, President Joe Biden’s pick to serve as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who was tapped to replace Gen. Mark Milley, who is scheduled to leave the post by the end of this month.
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.