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Sen. Tuberville and defense secretary speak again amid hold on military promotions

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., for months has blockaded promotions for high-ranking military officers over a Defense Department abortion policy, leading to criticism.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville speaks to reporters outside the Senate chamber at the Capitol
Sen. Tommy Tuberville speaks to reporters Thursday outside the Senate chamber at the Capitol.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., again spoke with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday evening to discuss the senator’s ongoing hold on hundreds of military promotions over an abortion policy.

“We’re talking, or trying to talk this out,” Tuberville said of his “good, short” conversation with Austin. “I think the more we continue to converse, I think the better chance we got.”

Tuberville has for months held back promotions for over 250 high-ranking military officers over a Defense Department policy to pay for the travel expenses of service members traveling to other states to have an abortion. He has said that he wants a vote on a bill introduced by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that would codify the policy into law, agreeing to end his blockade if it passes. In exchange, he wants the DOD to agree to rescind the policy if the measure fails. 

"If their bill does not pass, it goes back to the old policy. ... I just want them to do it the right way and go by the Constitution, and if they pass it, it passes and we’ll go on with life," Tuberville told NBC News last week.

Tuberville’s call with Austin, their second this month, comes as Defense Department officials plan to hold a closed-door briefing Wednesday morning with senators on the Armed Services Committee, including Tuberville, about the DOD abortion travel policy, two committee sources told NBC News.

Deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh previewed the briefing in comments to reporters on Monday, saying, “It’s just to give members who have any further questions about our policy to really talk to the experts.”

Austin told reporters Tuesday that Tuberville’s hold “is a readiness issue,” saying “it cascades, it creates friction throughout the entire chain.” And he defended the legality of the department's abortion policy.

“Sen. Tuberville has said that it’s illegal, it’s not illegal, and we’ve made that point a number of times,” Austin said, “I would ask Sen. Tuberville to lift his hold.”

The policy has been the subject of rigorous debate on Capitol Hill and has become a major part of the negotiations around the National Defense Authorization Act, a yearly must-pass defense policy bill. Republicans in the House inserted an amendment into their version of the package that would force the DOD to rescind the policy. The measure passed with largely Republican support. Senate Democrats have vowed to remove a whole host of conservative amendments added to the bill when they take up the legislation this week.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, plans to introduce her own amendment to the NDAA that would also effectively force DOD to walk back the policy.

“I do believe it affects our readiness," Ernst said of Tuberville's hold. "But I also believe that the DOD needs to reverse its policy. This is a roundabout way of having taxpayers basically fund abortions.”

Tuberville’s hold affects a growing number of high-ranking military officers as more promotions are submitted to the Senate for approval. That approval is typically done quickly, often without the Senate needing to vote at all under the unanimous agreement of all 100 senators.

But Tuberville’s blockade means each promotion would need to go through a process that includes two votes and hours of debate. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that going through that process for every promotion the Senate has to consider would take 668 hours, citing an analysis by the Congressional Research Service. 

“That is 27 days if the Senate works around the clock, 24/7,” Reed said on the Senate floor. “If the Senate just did exclusively military nominations for eight hours a day, it would take 84 days. So 'just vote' is not an answer. This is not a feasible solution to this issue.”

The protest by Tuberville has drawn bipartisan criticism, even from senators who support his attempt to rescind the abortion policy.

“I agree with the policy change he’s looking for. I think this is an ineffective way of accomplishing that purpose with a substantial cost,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told NBC News.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said "we need to end" the blockade. "You don’t always get your way around here," he added. "You do get to vote, but we lost an election."