WASHINGTON − In increasingly dire terms, Pentagon and Democratic leaders warn that Sen. Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, is endangering the country by blocking generals and admirals from taking their command because of a dispute over abortion policy.
Tuberville − for the seventh time since February − put a hold last week on a growing list of more than 200 military leaders awaiting Senate confirmation. Such confirmations are usually little more than a formality.
But by year’s end, the backlog of nominations for the military’s most senior officers could include more than 650 people, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Tuberville says Defense Department warnings lack merit. An independent researcher, though, points out that delayed confirmations have cascading effects that include postponing weapons-buying decisions.
“This indefinite hold harms America’s national security and hinders the Pentagon’s normal operations,” Austin wrote to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Armed Services committee, which deals with personnel.
Tuberville’s office, when asked for comment, sent a list of his statements, a letter from supporters of his hold, and opinion submissions he has made on the question. In his statements, Tuberville scoffs at the notion that national security is at risk, noting that the Pentagon will simply keep officers at their current jobs until the nominations are approved.
“I’m holding the military accountable; others are holding our national security hostage by forcing their agenda where it doesn’t belong,” Tuberville said in March. “Americans want a military focused on a national defense − and that’s what I’m fighting for.”
Dig deeper Sen. Tuberville blocking military nominees turns them into ‘political pawns’: former Defense secretaries
Abortion in the military
Tuberville opposes the Pentagon’s abortion policy, which was enacted after the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion last year. The policy allows for time off and travel expenses for reproductive health care, including abortion, for troops and their dependents in states where it is not available.
“The Biden administration has done everything possible to turn our military into just one more institution for left-wing social engineering,” Tuberville has said.
The Pentagon does not pay for abortions unless the life of the mother is endangered or when pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, according to Navy Cdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Pentagon spokesperson. From 2016 through 2021, 91 abortions of those kind were performed at military medical treatment facilities in accordance with federal law.
Tuberville calls the Pentagon’s policy on abortion illegal and says he’ll release his hold on the nominations when Austin rescinds it.
Neither side, for now, appears willing to budge. Meanwhile, the list of nominations awaiting Senate approval is growing.
But the Senate’s top Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, says he opposes the move by a member of his caucus. “No, I don’t support putting a hold on military nominations,” McConnell told reporters in response to a question about Tuberville’s blockade. “I don’t support that. But as to why, you’ll have to ask Sen. Tuberville.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee considers about 50,000 nominations a year for civilian and military officials at the Pentagon and the armed services. Most often nominations are approved in bunches by what is known as unanimous consent. That happened Thursday when a number of lower-ranking officers had their nominations for promotion approved by the Senate.
But senators, like Tuberville in this case, can place a “hold” on nominations, informing the Senate leader that they do not want a speedy vote.
Tuberville’s office has pointed out that Democrats have employed the same tactic. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, held up nominations of more than 1,100 officers in 2020 until the Pentagon provided proof that the promotion of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman hadn’t been blocked in retaliation for testifying against former President Donald Trump during his first impeachment.
Duckworth dropped her hold after about two weeks. Tuberville’s began in February and remains in place.
The Senate could hold nomination hearings for each officer, Tuberville has pointed out. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that could take months and accused Tuberville of holding the Pentagon and Senate “hostage.”
Tuberville’s hold affects military actions, officers’ careers and their families, said Albert Robbert, an adjunct researcher at the nonpartisan think tank RAND Corp.
Officers compelled to stay in jobs until their successor is confirmed may not have the authority to name subordinate commanders to combat posts, for instance, or to approve acquisitions for weapons systems, according to Robbert, a retired Air Force officer.
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Military families looking at the start of the school year
The hold also delays officers from developing in their careers because they’re stalled in their current jobs, he said. Meanwhile, nomination season coincides with the end of the school year, allowing officers to move their families to new cities before a new academic year begins.
“It can build frustration,” Robbert said.
That’s the case with Reed, who pointed out that admirals await approval to lead the Navy’s fleets in the Persian Gulf to deal with Iran and in Japan to confront China. Tuberville’s action, Reed said, is “very dangerous to the national security of the United States.”
“It has a profound effect, and every day it gets worse,” Reed said.
Austin, in his four-page letter to Warren, accused Tuberville of acting recklessly.
“Never before has one Senator prevented the Department of Defense from managing its officer corps in this manner, and letting this hold continue would set a dangerous precedent for our military, our security, and our country,” Austin wrote.
Austin has backing from seven of his predecessors, including Jim Mattis and Mark Esper, who were nominated by Trump. They co-signed a letter calling for the hold to be lifted. They noted that there are other ways to challenge Pentagon policy, such as introducing legislation.
“The blanket hold on the promotion or reassignment of these senior unifored leaders is harming military readiness and risks damaging U.S. national security,” they wrote.
More: GOP Sen. Tuberville blocked 184 military promotions in his ongoing abortion fight with the Pentagon
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tuberville abortion policy fight threatens US security, Pentagon says