WASHINGTON — A Republican senator is drawing bipartisan criticism for stalling promotions for over 150 military generals and flag officers in protest of a new Defense Department policy that provides travel expenses and paid time off for service members and their dependents seeking abortions.
The Senate must approve the promotions of top-level officers and generals, a task that is typically quick and smooth. But any one senator can throw sand in the gears, and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., is using a procedural tactic to block the speedy consideration of 158 generals and flag officers, as well as two civilian nominees.
“One senator — just one single senator, my colleague from Alabama, Sen. Tuberville — is blocking all general and flag officer confirmations, taking our military, our national security, our safety hostage,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “For years — years and years and years — both parties have worked together to quickly confirm the routine promotions of generals and flag officers without partisan bickering.
“Our general to NATO, he’s one of the people he’s blocking at a time when we have a war with Putin in Ukraine,” he said. “It’s just horrible what he is doing.”
Tuberville’s move has drawn criticism from some Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who said, “My concern is holding the promotions of members of the military as opposed to political nominees.”
“They’re not making the policy,” Collins said. “And at a time when we’re having recruitment and retention problems in our military, I worry about the signal that that would send, but it’s primarily — they’re not the policymakers.”
Tuberville said he will keep the hold on the promotions until the policy is changed, declaring at a Senate hearing Tuesday, “Over the past 40 years, I don’t recall one military person ever complaining that we weren’t performing enough abortions.”
“I want our military to be the strongest and the deadliest it has ever been but also want the administration to follow the law,” he said. “As long as I have a voice in this body, Congress will write the laws, not the secretary of defense, not the Joint Chiefs.”
The Defense Department says the policy does not fund abortions but instead gives service members and their dependents the ability to get reproductive procedures that may no longer be available as states roll back abortion protections after the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade last year.
“Almost 1 in 5 of our troops are women, and they don’t get a chance to choose where they're stationed, so almost 80,000 of our women are stationed in places where they don’t have access to non-covered reproductive health care,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a Senate hearing Tuesday. “And I heard from our troops, I heard from our senior leaders, I heard from our chiefs and also our secretaries, and this policy is based on strong legal grounds. And it is not a law; it is a policy.”
Austin addressed Tuberville directly at the hearing, saying: “I really implore you to reconsider and allow our nominations to move forward. It will make a significant difference for our force."
Unless Tuberville relents, there’s little the military or senators on either side of the aisle can do. Without an agreement, each promotion is subject to a simple majority vote, and given Senate procedure, it would take weeks to finish the dozens of promotions the Defense Department needs approved.
"Not only does Sen. Tuberville want to control the decisions women in the military make about their own health; he’s willing to hurt our troops and our country to do so," Schumer said.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who is temporarily leading the Republican conference as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recovers from a fall and a concussion, defended Tuberville, saying he is using his "rights as a senator to get the attention of the administration.”
"Sen. Tuberville — the issue that he’s raising, I agree that the Department of Defense’s policy is atrocious, and it is a departure from decadeslong understanding of federal public policy when it comes to that issue," Thune said.
"Hopefully, they can sit down with Sen. Tuberville and address the issue that he’s raised," he added. "He’s very passionate about it, and he’s not alone. We have a lot of members in our conference who care deeply about that issue."