The fight over Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) hold on military promotions is far from over after the Senate this week voted to approve only three out of more than 300 nominations languishing under the blockade.
The Senate’s Wednesday approval of Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown to be the next Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, as well as the Thursday votes on Gen. Randy George to become chief of staff of the Army and Gen. Eric Smith as the future commandant of the Marine Corps, leaves hundreds of other nominations in limbo.
Tuberville’s nearly seven-month block protesting the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy means an uncertain future for the leaders of the Air Force and Navy, as well as a host of other top roles.
But some within the Capitol are optimistic that the Senate approval of three top defense officials signals a thawing between the Democrats and Republicans over the issue, with more votes to follow.
“We’re optimistic that this is a break in the dam,” a Senate aide told The Hill Thursday.
“We could see some more breaks like this, even if it’s him allowing large chunks of nominees to go in time. The options are fluid right now, but I do think that internal Republican pressure can keep him moving here.”
But Tuberville insists his position hasn’t changed, and the pressure needed to push through hundreds of nominees isn’t there yet, according to Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“If their goal is to clear the backlog and to resolve the conflict … they’re really stuck,” she told The Hill. “I think they’ve been hoping that there’ll be sufficient Republican pressure on Sen. Tuberville to release his holds. But they haven’t achieved that yet.”
Tuberville since late February has prevented the Senate from voting on defense nominations via voice vote and in large batches using a procedural tactic.
The hold is meant to force the Pentagon to rescind its policy of covering travel expenses and leave for military personnel that must seek reproductive procedures, including abortions, out of state due to restrictive state laws where they live.
Tuberville’s stubbornness has earned him the ire of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as current and former defense officials who say the Pentagon can’t run effectively with so many officials standing in for top roles on an acting basis.
But Republicans have attempted to publicly shift blame to the Democrats for the delays, claiming that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) could have held roll call votes on the nominees individually, a lengthy process that would take months.
Democrats, in turn, insisted that holding such votes would politicize the military nominations process and take hundreds of hours of crucial floor time — holding firm on that stance for months until caving this week.
Schumer was forced to schedule votes on Brown, George and Smith after Tuberville announced he would force a procedural vote on Smith, the Marine Corps nominee.
But the Senate aide said Tuberville’s action this week appears to reflect more GOP pressure being used on the Alabama lawmaker, including at the weekly Republican meeting.
“During that meeting, there were a few members who basically were pushing Tuberville to find some other ways to start getting some movement, because just refusing to meet anyone in the middle on anything is not, in their view, a long-term solution,” the aide said.
“I think that Sen. Tuberville moving to push for a vote on Gen. Smith earlier this week did kind of show that there is pressure on Tuberville from GOP internally.”
The Democrats, meanwhile, saw the votes as an opportunity to get as many top officials as possible through the pipeline while they could, the aide added.
All three confirmations turned out to be landslides, with lawmakers voting 83-11 to confirm Brown (with Tuberville among the no votes), 96-1 for George and 96-0 for Smith.
Looking forward, Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general and former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director, guessed that the focus next week will be on the most senior of the military nominations still under the Tuberville hold.
Those include Biden’s Air Force chief of staff pick, Gen. David Allvin, and future Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti, who would be the first woman in the role.
The Armed Services Committee has a civilian nomination hearing next week and “will probably get a quorum then or earlier” on those nominees, Punaro told The Hill. “Once those are reported out and are on the executive calendar, Schumer will use the same procedure to approve them” in the next few weeks.
But such a method isn’t practical to push through the hundreds of others waiting for approval, the aide said, as “there’s no precedent for stand-alone votes on all these other nominees.”
“We have 300 more to go, and there’s going to be another 300 between now and the end of the year. Can we get through 650 doing the stand-alone votes this year? Maybe, but this is going to be really, really ugly,” the aide said.
Biden administration officials have also made clear that one-by-one votes are not the way to go in solving the larger problem.
“It doesn’t fix the problem or provide a path forward for the 316 other general and flag officers that are held up by this ridiculous hold,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement Wednesday: “It is well past time to confirm the over 300 other military nominees,” as service members “deserve to be led by highly-qualified general and flag officers at this critical moment for our national security.”
Austin has spoken with Tuberville multiple times, but neither party has shown a willingness to find common ground. Pentagon officials have maintained the abortion policy is about ensuring all service members, regardless of where they are stationed, have access to the same health care. Tuberville, however, claims the travel policy is illegal.
Ahead of the votes, Austin on Wednesday was at the Capitol for a closed session with the full Senate, a meeting focused on the war in Ukraine. But Austin took the chance to use the briefing to once again prod lawmakers on the abortion policy battle.
“The message was essentially, ‘This is having a real impact on readiness. There has to be some movement here and understanding.’ I don’t think he got a very good reception from Republicans on that,” said the Senate aide, who was not in the room but was told about the exchange.
A defense official confirmed to The Hill that Austin “delivered a strong message to the Senators that the blanket hold on nearly 300 nominees is harming national security, preventing our best officers from leading, and creating uncertainty for military families,” and directly asked Tuberville to lift his hold.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder also said Thursday said Austin “will continue to stay engaged with members of Congress.”
“We’ll continue to stay focused on working with the Hill and providing whatever information is necessary to ensure that those holds are lifted,” Ryder said.
“As for what’s next for the Senate in terms of any potential votes, that’s really something I’d have to refer you to the Senate on,” he added.
What is clear after the three rounds of votes is Tuberville seems more entrenched in his position than ever, warning Wednesday that his mind has not been changed, and the blockade stretches on.
“So, to be clear, my hold is still in place. The hold will remain in place as long as the Pentagon’s illegal abortion policy remains in place. If the Pentagon lifts the policy, then I will lift my hold. It’s as easy as that,” he said Wednesday.
Punaro put it another way.
“You can’t get more dug-in than he already is,” he said of Tuberville. “You would not budge him with the weapons we use against deeply buried targets.”