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Senate Democrats launch effort to bypass Tommy Tuberville's hold on military promotions

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has blocked quick approval of more than 300 top-level military promotions in protest of the Defense Department's abortion travel policy.
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WASHINGTON — A group of Senate Democrats is aiming to sidestep an Alabama Republican's blockade on hundreds of high-level military promotions by allowing the Senate to vote on all the nominees at once.

A resolution crafted by Democrats and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona would use a Senate tool to bypass Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who for months has prevented a quick vote on more than 300 top-level military promotions in protest of the Defense Department’s abortion travel policy.

The measure — spearheaded by Democratic Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Sinema — is not technically a rules change. Instead, it’s a temporary process change that would only be in effect through the end of next year. It also includes an exception for members of the joint chiefs and combatant commanders, positions which typically involve individual floor votes in the Senate due to their importance.

“This is a suspension of the rules technically,” Reed, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, told NBC News. “We have to move forward," he added, noting that military personnel were being left "in limbo" amid the Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The proposed resolution comes as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has pressed to advance a vote on three of President Joe Biden’s nominees, including the Marine Corps’ second-in-command, Lt. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, the chief of naval operations and the Air Force chief of staff.

Schumer called Mahoney's appointment "urgent," after the Marine Corps’ commandant, Gen. Eric Smith, was hospitalized due to a medical emergency over the weekend.

On Wednesday, Schumer told reporters he will call for moving forward with Reed’s resolution.

“What happened with the Marine commandant just showed many people how dangerous what Tuberville is doing is. And so, I will call for a resolution on the floor to allow us to vote on all these people at once,” Schumer said.

The resolution would have to go through the Senate Rules Committee. It would also require 60 votes to pass on the Senate floor. No Senate Republicans have come out and said explicitly that they would support such a move.

“I don’t want to, let’s just put it like that,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told NBC News on Wednesday. “I do not want to, and I think that we need to take every avenue possible to avoid it. And then let’s take every avenue first and then we’ll debate the next move.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, told reporters that military personnel were “being punished over policies that they they have no hand in."

Sullivan, a former Marine, added that "even if they got confirmed" they "would have no ability to change" those policies.

“That these guys are woke? It’s bull----. Such bull----,” he said. “These are warriors."

In a notable intraparty escalation, Republicans on Wednesday went to the floor for the first time to try and unanimously approve a group of high-level military promotions, a tactic that Tuberville has objected to. The move mirrors attempts Senate Democrats have made in past months to try and do the same, and marks a significant shift for Tuberville’s Republican colleagues who, until Wednesday, had not publicly rebuffed his holds on the Senate floor.

“One of the things that I can’t understand is if you require our military to be subordinate to the people above them in the civilian world, why would you punish them for something they’ve got nothing to do with,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on the Senate floor before attempting to confirm a promotion for Maj. Gen. Laura Lenderman.

Tuberville objected to the attempt, saying, “If senators want to vote on these nominees one by one, I’m all in. I’m happy to do that. But I will keep my hold in place until the Pentagon follows the law or the Democrats change the law.”

“You’ve just denied this lady a promotion. You did that,” Graham responded.

The floor fight between Tuberville and his GOP colleagues lasted about four-and-a-half hours, with Tuberville objecting to each of the 60 military nominations brought to the floor.

Tuberville, who tried to force a vote on Mahoney, said Republicans voting to circumvent his holds would be “suicide for some of them.”

“They’ve gotta vote for their constituents, they don’t vote for themselves,” Tuberville told NBC News before the floor fight. “See, I don’t understand that. I mean, you’re either pro-life or you're not, and so if they vote against this it’s gonna be suicide for some of them. Let them do it.”

The change to the procedures for the military promotions sought by Senate Democrats would need the support of nine Senate Republicans if all 51 senators who align with Democrats support it. Some Republicans are skittish on changing the rules, even if they support the end result.

Sen. Jack Reed speaks during a Senate hearing
Sen. Jack Reed.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

“I’m always really circumspect about changing the rules here for a specific situation," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told NBC News.

Murkowski said that a "failure" to process the nominations bears an impact on national security and preparedness.

"I think it impacts morale," she added. “And at a time when we call on our military to do so much, I don’t want to unduly degrade their situation. So I’d like to see a resolve to this.”

Tuberville’s holds do not prohibit the promotions from being taken up for a vote, but it slows down the process significantly for each of the nominees.

Democrats have largely dismissed calls from Republicans to consider the promotions one-by-one, arguing that such a process is untenable and that the Senate should follow what has been a customary process of approving the promotions in batches.