Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin blasts GOP senator’s blockade of military promotions as ‘unnecessary’ and ‘unsafe’

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday criticized Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s ongoing hold on hundreds of military promotions as an “unprecedented” move that threatens the country’s safety.

“Because of this blanket hold, starting today, for the first time in the history of the Department of Defense, three of our military services are operating without Senate-confirmed leaders,” Austin said during a relinquishment ceremony for the chief of naval operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

“This is unprecedented, it is unnecessary, and it is unsafe,” he added. “This sweeping hold is undermining America’s military readiness. It’s hindering our ability to retain our very best officers. And it’s upending the lives of far too many American military families.”

Austin said troops, military families, allies and partners of the U.S., and the country’s national security “deserve better.”

“So let me say again that smooth and swift transitions of confirmed leadership are central to the defense of the United States and to the full strength of the most lethal fighting force in history,” he said.

Austin called for the Senate to confirm “all of our superbly qualified military nominees, including the 33rd chief of naval operations.”

Austin did not name Tuberville in his speech, but his comments mark his strongest condemnation of the hold led by Alabama senator, who is a member of the Armed Services Committee. Tuberville has blocked hundreds of such appointments for months, citing his objection to a Defense Department policy that provides paid time off and reimburses travel costs for service members and dependents seeking abortions.

Tuberville 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 Defense Department to agree to rescind the policy if the measure fails.

Tuberville and Austin spoke with each other twice last month ahead of a closed-door briefing Defense Department officials held with senators on the Armed Services Committee, including Tuberville, about the abortion travel policy, two committee sources told NBC News at the time.

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

Speaking to reporters the day of his second call with Tuberville, Austin said the senator’s hold is a “readiness issue” and that “it cascades, it creates friction throughout the entire chain.” He also 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 last month. “I would ask Sen. Tuberville to lift his hold.”

The Defense Department’s policy on abortion has been the subject of heated debate on Capitol Hill and has become a major part of the negotiations on the National Defense Authorization Act, a yearly must-pass defense policy bill. Republicans in the House passed the their version of the legislation after adding an amendment that would require the Pentagon to rescind the policy.

The Democratic-led Senate, however, passed its own version of the defense policy bill last month after skipping floor votes on the amendments related to abortion access and transgender healthcare in the military, setting the stage for a conflict with the House GOP that will need to be worked out before the bill can become law.

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