President Joe Biden denounced Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s blockade of hundreds of military nominations at a joint news conference with Finland's president in Helsinki on Thursday, calling Tuberville's actions "totally irresponsible."
Military promotions are usually approved by Congress without delay, but Tuberville, R-Ala., a member of the Armed Services Committee, has blocked hundreds of such appointments, citing his objection to a Defense Department policy that provides paid time off and reimburses travel costs for service members and dependents seeking abortions.
Biden, standing beside Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, said he would be willing to talk to Tuberville “if I thought there’s any possibility of him changing his ridiculous position. He’s jeopardizing U.S. security with what he’s doing.”
“I expect the Republican Party to stand up — stand up and do something about it,” he continued.
“The idea that we don’t have a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the idea that we have all these promotions that are in abeyance right now and we don’t know what’s going to happen, the idea they we’re injecting into fundamental foreign policy decisions what in fact is a domestic social debate on social issues is bizarre,” Biden said. “I don’t ever recall it happening, ever. And it’s just totally irresponsible, in my view.
“I’m confident that the mainstream Republican Party no longer, does not support what he’s doing, but they got to stand up and be counted,” he said. “That’s how it ends.”
Tuberville told NBC News that he would consider lifting his blockade if the Senate would agree to vote on whether to keep the current policy and the Pentagon and the White House would promise to rescind it should the vote fail.
"If it fails, it's got to go back to the original," Tuberville said of the policy. He had previously said he would lift his holds only if the policy were rescinded.
Tuberville said he is willing to meet with Biden to work toward a compromise but expressed disappointment that Biden had blasted him abroad.
“If I’d have been president, I’d call me a long time ago," he said. "But you know, I understand we’ve got a lot of problems in this country. We got a lot of foreign problems and, and he got — that’s a hard job. I can’t imagine doing that. So, you know, he got pretty, pretty fired up about me and on foreign soil. I wish he hadn’t done that.”
In a briefing for reporters, the Pentagon press secretary, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, confirmed that Austin and Tuberville spoke Thursday and said Austin explained how the holds are causing "uncertainty in the force" and jeopardizing "military readiness."
"A key principle in the effectiveness of our military is a well-defined chain of command," Ryder said. Any uncertainty about the fate of "incoming or outgoing commanders, and senior leaders, can make it difficult to plan for advanced mission requirements," he said.
Tuberville and Austin agreed to speak again next week, Ryder said.
Separately, Austin told CNN he will “continue to engage” with Tuberville to try to clear the impasse, though he added that service members will still be reimbursed for abortion-related travel expenses.
“That’s our policy,” Austin said.
He also said the stalled appointments are affecting national security and military readiness.
“This is a national security issue. It’s a readiness issue. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves. I think any member of the Senate Armed Services Committee knows that," Austin told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
“We have a policy that allows our troops to get access to non-covered reproductive health care, and I think that’s an important policy," Austin said.
“One in 5 of my troops … is a woman, and our women provide tremendous value to this force, and I think we need to do everything we can to take care of them,” he added.
Criticism of Tuberville’s blockade continues to mount.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a longtime defense hawk, told NBC News that he, too, opposes the Pentagon's abortion policy but that the blockade must end.
"The point about holding up promotions, we need to end that," Graham said, adding that he will also "be asking for a vote to change the policy."
As a result of Tuberville's holds, the Marine Corps is without a confirmed chief for the first time in more than 150 years, and a Pentagon spokesperson said as many as 650 military leadership positions may be vacant by year’s end if the holds continue.
Austin's comments echoed those of Air Force Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown, Biden's pick to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the holds could affect readiness, with less experienced deputies having to take up leadership positions temporarily, and that they could discourage junior officers from staying in the military while creating financial and logistical burdens for troops’ families.
A spokesperson for Tuberville said in May, when Brown's nomination was announced, that the hold would also apply to Brown. The term of the current Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Mark Milley, ends in October.