Democrats and some Republicans have long expressed unease with Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) blockade of military nominees over a Pentagon abortion policy.
But with the United States’s closest ally now waging a war in the Middle East while critical positions remain on hold, Democrats are getting behind a plan to circumvent Tuberville’s hold. It will only work, however, if some Republicans back it — a test of whether Republicans’ private frustrations with the Republican Alabama senator’s tactics run deep enough to spur public action.
The new plan would require nine or more Republicans to join with Democrats in order to approve a large block of military nominees at once, without infringing on senators’ power to stall nominations.
Anger at the affable former college football coach, who has said “there’s nobody more military” than him, have reached a boiling point since Hamas attacked Israel earlier this month.
Tuberville “has not served a day in his life,” said Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a Navy combat veteran who sits on the Armed Services Committee with him. The generally understated Kelly has taken aim at Tuberville in recent weeks, tussling with him at a committee hearing over his claim to military expertise and characterizing his hold as hurting Israel and helping Hamas at a news conference.
Tuberville’s blanket hold applies to all senior military promotions, and more than 350 officers are now caught up in its net. That includes officials whose purview is the Middle East, like the deputy commander of the United States Central Command (Centcom), and the commander of the Fifth Fleet — who are both awaiting stalled nominations to three-star positions. (The Fifth Fleet has headquarters in Bahrain and oversees naval operations across the Middle East.) President Biden’s nominee to lead the Navy, Admiral Lisa Franchetti, and General David Allvin, who has been tapped to lead the Air Force, are also stalled and performing the jobs in an acting capacity while also still doing the work of their previous posts.
The Defense Department has deployed thousands of additional U.S. military personnel to the Middle East this month amid rising concerns of an expected Israeli ground offensive in the Gaza Strip prompted by the Oct. 7 cross-border attacks by the militant group Hamas. The deployments include the repositioning of two aircraft carrier strike groups, each with about 7,500 troops, a three-ship amphibious task force of more than 4,000 sailors and Marines, and an increase in the number of fighter jets and air defense systems the Pentagon keeps in the region.
The volatility has renewed scrutiny on the former Auburn University football coach, who began his hold in February to protest the military’s policy of aiding service members who need to travel in order to legally obtain an abortion. His Democratic and some Republican colleagues have urged him to drop the holds, but Tuberville hasn’t been moved.
“This is more evidence that the need to lock up women for their health-care choices is more important to many Republicans than protecting our country or protecting Israel,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “The thing they care about most is criminalizing abortion.”
But Tuberville said he wasn’t feeling the heat, even as the president made a surprise visit to Israel, top military leaders journeyed to the Hill to debrief senators about the conflict and lawmakers debated sending billions of dollars to help Israel.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Tuberville told reporters last week.
“It’s not holding up any readiness,” he said later of his blanket hold. “I mean, we’re not at war, number one. And all these jobs that we’re holding, they’re all being done.”
He also expressed no frustration when told Democrats were trying to get around that hold.
“I figured they’d try to find a way around it,” Tuberville said. “That’s their prerogative.”
Democrats could overrule Tuberville’s holds by scheduling individual votes on military nominees, which in the recent past have almost always been approved unanimously by the Senate in blocks of nominations. Many Republicans have suggested Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) should do that.
“This is a stubborn stand off,” said Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But if it’s serious to them, they oughta do what they need to do.”
Last month, Schumer scheduled votes for Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman C.Q. Brown and two other high-ranking officials who were quickly confirmed after Tuberville, under pressure for holding them up, threatened to force a vote. But making it through the more than 350 nominees individually would take months of nonstop floor time — a prospect Schumer has ruled out. And Democrats are concerned allowing an individual senator to effectively shut down the chamber in order to confirm nonpolitical nominees would set a bad precedent.
This week, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who sits on Armed Services with Tuberville, began circulating a petition to force Schumer to bring a vote on two high-ranking military nominees.
Tuberville said he signed the petition and has told his Republican colleagues he’ll support any move to force votes on individual nominees. “I’m just tired of getting blamed for all this,” Tuberville said.
The new plan, which Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and others have pushed for and which Punchbowl News first reported, would likely take nine Republicans to join with all Democrats to confirm the military nominees in large chunks, rather than one by one. It would not require a permanent rule change that would alter senators’ individual power to slow nominations in the future — a dealbreaker for many senators.
But Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said on Wednesday he believed most Republicans agreed with Tuberville that the military should change its abortion policy, and was not sure there would be support to go around his hold entirely. “I don’t think there’s going to be any interest in doing a big block [of nominations],” he said.
A Senate aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal developments said some Republicans had already signed onto the plan, but that they were not yet at the 60 votes they’d need.
There may be some pressure for Republicans to sign on, however. The hold has caused some awkward moments for Senate Republicans projecting unified support of Israel. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) faced questions about Tuberville’s hold as she led a news conference criticizing the Biden administration for not being sufficiently hard on Iran to aid Israel.
“Democrats can do these one by one,” she retorted. “They could have been doing them for months.”
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said he gets asked about Tuberville’s holds “all the time.”
“I don’t think it’s going to critically harm things but that doesn’t mean it’s something I would choose to do,” he said.
Some Republicans have tried to get Tuberville to back off his position, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier this year he didn’t agree with the tactic.
“There have been conversations for some time between Senator Tuberville and others, and I keep hoping that we’ll be able to come up with a path forward, but at the moment I think the best answer is to just start moving these [nominations],” Thune said last week. “Democrats could do that if they wanted to.”
Tuberville shows no signs of cracking and has cast himself as a strong defender of the military, posting on Facebook about honoring a “veteran of the month” and putting together care packages with the USO for troops stationed overseas.
He shared a clip of White House national security spokesman John Kirby criticizing his hold as damaging to the military on his own Facebook page, then bragged that he got the vote he wanted on the nomination.
“I demanded a vote on this nomination. And Chuck Schumer just gave it to me,” he wrote.
The holds directly affect more than 368 officers, according to a Department of Defense tally, with at least 72 officers unable to assume their new positions and 25 officers forced to defer their retirements.
Tuberville has garnered criticism from former national security officials. Former CIA and NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden has criticized the senator on social media, writing that he did not consider him a member of the human race. Tuberville blasted the comment as a death threat and said in a statement he’d referred the matter to the Capitol Police.
And at an Armed Services hearing earlier this month, Kelly called out Tuberville after he remarked that “there’s nobody more military up here than me.”
The combat veteran and astronaut said he and a few other senators had actually served in the military, unlike Tuberville, and that his comment didn’t “make any sense.” Tuberville retorted that because his father died while on active duty, he had a right to say whatever he wanted.
“No, I don’t think that’s the case,” Kelly said.
Jacob Bogage and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.