Nearly 200 military nominees remain in limbo before the Senate with no clear end in sight as a Republican senator continues his protest over Defense Department’s abortion access policies.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., first threatened to block military nomination votes on the Senate floor late last year and halted all confirmations and senior promotions starting in early March. There are now 186 uniformed and civilian nominees stalled as a result of the move, and more expected in coming weeks.
The result is frustration among senior Pentagon leaders and Democratic lawmakers who say Tuberville’s procedural blockade is hurting operations and creating hardship for military families, who are in limbo until the assignments are approved, waiting the move to their next posts. But Tuberville is unconvinced that his move poses any serious military readiness issues, and said he has had no direct complaints from senior department officials in the last two months.
“It’s their job to come to me,” he told reporters on April 20. “This is not anything I’m trying to do to hurt anybody. I’m just trying to prevent this White House from running all over the Senate. We’re supposed to make the laws, not them.”
At issue is a Defense Department policy announced last fall which provides leave time and stipends for troops and qualified family members to travel across state lines to receive abortion services. Military leaders said the move was needed to preserve troops’ medical rights following a number of states outlawing abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the long-standing Roe v. Wade ruling last summer.
But Republican lawmakers have called it an illegal attempt to get around state laws. Senior Senate Republicans have declined Democratic leaders’ calls to condemn Tuberville’s nominee blockade, and several — including fellow Senate Armed Services Committee members Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D. — have public supported the move.
On Monday, during an event at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., called Tuberville’s move “a very serious intrusion of politics into what should be a professional military decision” and warned the problems associated with the holds will compound in coming weeks.
During a committee hearing on April 20, John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said that Tuberville’s holds — which include Rear Adm. Fred Kacher, the nominee to take over command of U.S. 7th Fleet — are not having an immediate operational impact because “our existing commanders are not going anywhere until the proper replacement is in place.”
But he added that “the real impact … is personal advancement, it’s the personal development, it’s the family understanding and predictability.”
And Reed warned that operational disruption will come soon, if those commanders retire or step away. The chairman said he is speaking with Senate Democratic leadership to find a solution around Tuberville’s holds.
Lawmakers can call up individual nominations for full-chamber votes, as they did earlier this month with Radha Iyengar Plumb, the new Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition.
However, doing that with the 186 other pending nominations and promotions would take months of floor time. Democrats have argued that such routine business should not be prolonged by procedural stunts.
But Tuberville said he has no intention of dropping his holds anytime soon. Earlier this month, he forced a chamber vote to mandate changes in the Department of Veterans Affairs abortion policy (which failed, 51-48), but he said that issue has no bearing on his military objections.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.