Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona independent who left the Democratic Party last year, is calling on both the Biden administration and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., to soften their positions and find a “middle ground” to end the Republican’s monthslong blockade of hundreds of military promotions over a Defense Department policy involving abortion.
According to a recording obtained by NBC News, Sinema told a meeting of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce last week that she has “offered” to help both sides come to a consensus.
“I know that Coach does not want to undermine the readiness of our United States military,” Sinema said, referring to the former college football coach by his preferred title. “And I know that the United States military and the administration does not want to undermine the authority and the right of any United States senator. What we need are for folks to step off a little bit from their positions and find that middle ground to solve the challenge that we’re facing.”
“I’ve volunteered to help do that,” she added. “We’ll see if they take me up on the offer.”
The remarks, which came in response to an audience question, represent a bold move by Sinema to wade into a monthslong dispute in which Tuberville has blocked promotions for more than 250 high-ranking military officers. NBC News is first to report on Sinema's comments, which her office did not deny.
Her call for the Pentagon and Tuberville to compromise puts Sinema, whose seat comes up for re-election in a crucial swing state next fall, at odds with President Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party, who have blasted Tuberville for what they call a dangerous gambit and insisted that the standoff will end only when he backs off. Tuberville has faced criticism from the Department of Defense leadership and even some Republicans who worry the blockade could hamper military readiness.
Sinema, who has a long record of voting in favor of reproductive rights as a senator, didn't specifically discuss abortion or detail what shifts she wants to see from the Pentagon or Tuberville, who is holding up military promotions over the abortion policy. She said she disagrees with Tuberville but has “respect” for the power he has been using.
“What we’re in is a position of pain — we’re in a pinch point right now,” she said. “Coach wants something the military and the administration is not willing to give him. But it would be a mistake to take away that tool from a United States senator because it is an important tool to address unmet needs."
The ability for any one senator to be able to lead such a charge is a power that is particularly useful for Sinema, who seeks to be a deciding force in a closely divided Senate.
“So what I’m encouraging both Coach and the administration to do is to be flexible in finding a solution," she added at last week's event. "There is always a solution to be had. It may not be everything the Coach wants. And it may not be everything that the United States military or the administration wants. But there is a solution to be found. And so what I have offered to both Coach and to the administration is to help in any way that I can to help find that solution, because it does exist. It always exists.”
Sinema has repeatedly rankled members of her former party amid a number of key policy disputes. She waded into the Tuberville controversy as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week condemned the Alabama Republican for his “unprecedented” and “unsafe” actions that has led to three branches of the military “operating without Senate confirmed leaders.”
“This sweeping hold is undermining America’s military readiness,” he said. “It’s hindering our ability to retain our very best officers. And it’s upending the lives of far too many American military families.”
Asked Tuesday if there’s any possibility the Pentagon will change policy to compromise with Tuberville, Department of Defense spokesperson Sabrina Singh told reporters, “No.”
“No, we’re not going to change our policy on ensuring that every single service member has equitable access to reproductive health care,” Singh said. “If you are a service member stationed in a state that has rolled back or restricted health care access, you are often stationed there because you were assigned there. It is not that you chose to go there. And so a service member in Alabama deserves to have the same access to health care as a service member in California, as a service member stationed in Korea.”
“And so that’s what that policy does. It’s not a abortion policy,” the spokesperson added. “We have a travel policy that allows for our service members to take advantage of health care that should be accessible to them.”
The Pentagon declined to comment on Sinema’s remarks, referring to Singh’s response Tuesday about the question of compromising with Tuberville. Meanwhile, a person close to Tuberville said he “has not spoken to Sinema” about the matter.
The White House declined to comment on Sinema, citing a policy of not discussing private communications with lawmakers. A spokesperson referred to the White House’s stated position condemning Tuberville’s holds due to the damage on military readiness.
The Pentagon policy allows for travel expenses of service members who go to other states for reproductive health care services, including abortions, to be covered.
NBC News sent Sinema’s office a series of written questions asking to describe the offer she alluded to, what sort of compromise she favors on the abortion-related policy and whether she agrees with the criticism of Tuberville’s holds. Her office declined to discuss her private conversations.
“Kyrsten believes our national security should be above politics,” Hannah Hurley, a Sinema spokesperson, said in an email. “She is laser-focused on protecting America’s military readiness, and that includes ensuring military officer promotions are quickly confirmed. As always, Kyrsten remains committed to working with anyone to overcome partisan obstacles in Washington and deliver lasting solutions.”
Asked to comment on Sinema’s remarks calling for a compromise on the abortion dispute, Tuberville spokesperson Steven Stafford told NBC News: “Coach has been open to discussions with the administration from the beginning.”
Shortly after the November 2022 midterm elections, Sinema left the Democratic Party and changed her registration to independent, although she continues to get her committee assignments under the party’s 51-seat Senate majority. She has been coy about whether she plans to run for re-election in 2024, and it’s far from clear she has a path to victory outside the two major parties. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., has established himself as the front-runner in the party primary and has depicted Sinema as a pawn of wealthy special interests, while Sinema has maintained she’s only interested in doing the right thing for Arizona. Republicans have an open field with various candidates jockeying for the nomination.
An Emerson College poll of a hypothetical three-person race released earlier this month found Gallego in first with 36% of Arizona voters backing him, while 29% backed Republican Mark Lamb, a sheriff who has announced a GOP bid, and 21% backed Sinema. The survey showed Sinema drawing more support from Republicans than Democrats.
Although Sinema has bucked her party on taxes and other economic issues, she has largely aligned with the White House and progressives on abortion, voting last year for the Women’s Health Protection Act to codify the right to terminate a pregnancy and criticizing the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. She has not, however, been willing to pierce the 60-vote filibuster rule to advance her position on abortion or other issues.