U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Sept. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Sen. Tommy Tuberville insisted he will smooth things over with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after the top Pentagon official said Tuesday that the Alabama senator’s continued hold on 160 defense nominees will affect U.S. military readiness.
“We’re gonna work it out,” Tuberville told States Newsroom on his way to the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, following a hearing with Austin.
The first-term Republican has been blocking the military promotions as a protest against the Defense Department’s policy, announced in February, that grants service members leave and travel allowances for “non-covered reproductive health care,” including abortion procedures.
“I’m holding DoD nominations because the secretary of Defense is trying to push through a massive expansion of taxpayer-subsidized abortions — without going through this body. Without going through Congress,” Tuberville said on the Senate floor on March 8.
“Three months ago, I informed Secretary Austin that if he tried to turn the DoD into an abortion travel agency, I would place a hold on all civilian, flag, and general officer nominees.”
Tuberville argues that annually passed restrictions by Congress prohibiting federal funding for abortion procedures, except in cases of rape, incest and life-threatening pregnancies, prevent the Defense Department from giving leave or travel allowances for members seeking the procedure.
On Tuesday, Austin testified during a budget hearing before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, on which Tuberville sits. The two exchanged comments about the stalled nominations.
Chair Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, asked about the implications of delayed nominations, which include high ranking positions in the Army, Marine Corps and Navy, and dozens of three- and four-star promotions.
“The effects are absolutely critical in terms of the impact on the force,” Austin replied. “This is one of the busiest and most complex times we’ve seen lately. We see a war, the largest conflict in Europe since World War II. We see an aggressive China operating in the Indo-Pacific. We see Iranian-backed elements going after our troops. And there are a number of things happening globally that indicate we could be in a contest on any given day.”
“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.”
Austin described the effects as “cumulative,” creating uncertainty for families regarding which duty station they’ll report to and where children will enroll in school.
“I have never in my almost three decades here seen so many key military positions coming up for replacement,” Reed said.
Military promotions are generally a routine exercise for the Senate, which often approves them in large groups.
“If we cannot resolve this situation, we will be in many respects leaderless in a time of great conflict. I would hope we would expedite and move quickly on this front,” Reed continued.
Democrats blast Tuberville
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and other Democratic senators have criticized Tuberville’s blanket hold on the nominations.
A hold can be used by a senator to seek more information or object to certain matters, usually in the form of a letter outlining the lawmaker’s policy views or scheduling concerns. Ultimately Senate leadership decides when and how long to honor a hold.
Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet argued in an op-ed published by CNN Tuesday that the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision negatively affects military women who don’t get to choose where to live.
Dobbs overturned Roe v. Wade, which granted federal protections for abortions. In the absence of that federal right, some states rushed to ban or tightly restrict the practice following the SCOTUS decision.
Roughly 80,000 female service members are stationed in locations without or severely restricted access to non-covered reproductive health care, like elective abortions, according to a September 2022 report published by the think tank RAND.
“The number of women enlisting in the military has grown significantly over time. They now represent roughly a fifth of the total force and over a third of our civilian workforce. But when women volunteer for active duty, they, like any other service member, don’t choose where to serve. The Pentagon decides that,” Bennet argued in the op-ed.
“Before Dobbs, our troops had some assurance that, wherever the Pentagon sent them, they would at least have minimal access to reproductive care as a protected constitutional right. Not anymore. The Supreme Court stripped away that right, without grappling in its written opinion with the harm it would inflict on service women in states with little or no access to reproductive care,” wrote Bennet, who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Committee on Rules and Administration, among other assignments.
Tuberville told States Newsroom on Tuesday that he felt he “had a good conversation today in the hearing” with Austin.
“I put out my two cents worth, and he put his two cents worth in. Well, we’ll start communicating. I talked to him on the phone a couple days ago, so it’s good to have conversations. Couldn’t get anybody to visit with me, so you can’t work out problems,” Tuberville said.
When asked if he would pursue further conversations, Tuberville replied “Oh, yeah. No, we’re gonna work this out.”
Tuberville declined to provide details about his plans for solving the situation. When asked if he would negotiate or move on his position, he replied “not yet.”
“We’re still gonna work it out,” he repeated.
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