Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin greets Sens. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Defense Department’s fiscal 2023 budget in April 2022.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin greets Sens. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Defense Department’s fiscal 2023 budget in April 2022. (Lisa Ferdinando/Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama refused to release his hold on the Senate’s consideration of military promotions Tuesday even as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned senators a continued holdup would have a “ripple effect” across the armed forces.

Tuberville is blocking the full Senate from swiftly confirming about 160 nominees for promotions until the Defense Department rescinds new abortion policies that provide leave and stipends for service members and family members traveling across state lines to access abortion care.

Senators typically approve batches of nominations by voice vote, and Tuberville’s hold would force the Senate to find time for lengthy roll call votes. During a hearing Tuesday on the Defense Department’s 2024 budget, the senator reiterated his objections to the abortion policies amid intensifying criticism from Democrats and a plea by Austin to end the obstruction.

“I really implore you to reconsider and allow our nominations to move forward,” Austin told Tuberville during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “It will make a significant difference for our force.”

Austin said the Defense Department is feeling the effects of the pileup, which continues to grow as the DOD sends more nominees to the Senate for approval.

He said the promotions are “absolutely critical” as the military contends with the largest European conflict since World War II in Ukraine, an aggressive China in the Indo-Pacific region and Iran-backed militias targeting U.S. troops in the Middle East.

“There are a number of things happening globally that indicate that we could be in a contest on any one given day,” Austin said. “Not approving the recommendation for promotions actually creates a ripple effect through the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be.”

The stalled nominations for general and flag officers include commanders for U.S. naval forces in the Pacific and the Middle East as well as the U.S. military representative to the NATO Military Committee. Five three-star generals are among the pending confirmations.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the chairman of the Senate committee, said the backlog is slated to rapidly increase in the coming months due to a spate of upcoming retirements, including the mandatory end in September of Army Gen. Mark Milley’s term as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“If we cannot resolve this situation, we will be, in many respects, leaderless at a time of great conflict,” Reed said.

Austin said the paralysis in the Senate will cause more damage the longer it goes on, affecting military families and the schools their children attend.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Tuesday lashed out against Tuberville on the Senate floor and called his actions unprecedented. Senators have used the military promotion process to make political points in the past, but Tuberville stands out for blocking votes on not just leadership posts but routine military promotions.

“This level of obstruction — of routine military promotions — is a reckless departure from Senate norm. None of us want to live in a world where military appointments get routinely politicized, and that's just what the senator from Alabama is doing,” Schumer said. “He’s inflicting unnecessary damage to our military leadership. And it would paralyze the Senate if all of us had to take one roll call vote after another just to confirm routine, apolitical, qualified generals and other flag officers."

Tuberville was unfazed by the backlash. He told Austin that the new policies amounted to the Pentagon paying for elective abortions with taxpayer money and said defense officials overstepped their authority in crafting the rules.

Under current law, federal money cannot be used for abortions unless the mother’s life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest. Service members’ Tricare health insurance does not cover the cost of obtaining the procedure privately.

“My colleagues on the left think this abortion issue is good for a campaign, and that’s what this shouldn’t be about. I’m not going to let our military be politicized, I want our military to be the strongest and deadliest it has ever been, but I also want the administration to follow the law,” Tuberville said. “As long as I have a voice in this body, Congress will write the laws, not the secretary of defense, not the joint chiefs.”

Austin argued the new policies are based on strong legal ground and said they were composed with the input of troops and senior military leaders. The Defense Department unveiled the policies in February, months after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.

About one in five service members are women, and almost 80,000 of them are stationed in places with restricted access to the procedure, Austin said.

“This policy does not fund abortions, I want to be clear about this,” he said. “This policy provides access to noncovered reproductive health care.”

There were no signs Tuesday that the Defense Department would rescind the measures.

Tuberville also held up some military confirmations last year over the Defense Department’s delay in providing information about the abortion travel policy, but he stopped the standoff before the end of the congressional session in December.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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