WASHINGTON – Republican senators angrily challenged Sen. Tommy Tuberville on his blockade of almost 400 military officers Wednesday evening, taking over the Senate floor for more than four hours to call for individual confirmation votes after a monthslong stalemate.
Tuberville, R-Ala., stood and objected to each nominee — 61 times total, when the night was over — extending his holds on the military confirmations and promotions with no immediate resolution in sight. But the extraordinary confrontation between Republicans, boiling over almost nine months after Tuberville first announced the holds over a Pentagon abortion policy, escalated the standoff as Defense Department officials have repeatedly said the backlog of officials needing confirmation could endanger national security.
“Why are we putting holds on war heroes?" asked Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, himself a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. “I don't understand.”
Wrapping up for the night at almost 11 p.m., Sullivan said the senators will keep returning to the floor to call up nominations. If the standoff continues and officers leave the military, he said, Tuberville's blockade will be remembered as a "national security suicide mission.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham told Tuberville, who mostly sat quiet and alone as they talked, that he should sue the military if he thinks the policy is illegal. “That’s how you handle these things,” Graham said.
After Tuberville objected to a vote on a two-star general nominated to be a deputy commander in the Air Force, Graham turned and faced him. “You just denied this lady a promotion," Graham said angrily to Tuberville. "You did that.”
Tuberville said Wednesday there is “zero chance” he will drop the holds. Despite several high-level vacancies and the growing backlog of nominations, he has said he will continue to hold the nominees up unless the Pentagon ends — or puts to a vote in Congress — its new policy of paying for travel when a service member has to go out of state to get an abortion or other reproductive care. President Joe Biden's administration instituted the policy after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to an abortion, and some states have limited or banned the procedure.
“I cannot simply sit idly by while the Biden administration injects politics in our military from the White House and spends taxpayers' dollars on abortion," Tuberville said.
Showing obvious frustration and frequent flashes of anger, the Republican senators — Sullivan, Graham, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, Indiana Sen. Todd Young and others — read lengthy biographies and praised individual nominees as they called for vote after vote. They said they agree with Tuberville on the policy, but questioned — as Democrats have for months — why he would hold up the highest ranks of the U.S. military.
Sullivan said Tuberville is “100 percent wrong” that his holds are not affecting military readiness. Ernst said the nominees are being used as “political pawns.” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney advised Tuberville to try to negotiate an end to the standoff. All of them warned that good people would leave military service if the blockade continues.
As the night wore on, Sullivan and Ernst — herself a former commander in the U.S. Army Reserve and Iowa Army National Guard — continued to bring up new nominations and appeared to become increasingly frustrated. They noted that they were bringing up the nominations “one by one” as Tuberville had once called for, and asked why he wouldn't allow them to go forward. Tuberville did not answer.
“I do not respect men who do not honor their word,” Ernst said at one point.
Sullivan said “China is smiling” as the United States blocks its own military heroes. “As an American, it almost wants to make you weep.”
The GOP effort to move the nominations came after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday morning they are trying a new workaround to confirm the officers. Schumer said the Senate will consider a resolution in the near future that would allow the quick confirmation of the now nearly 400 officers up for promotion or nominated for another senior job.
The resolution by Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona would tweak the rules until the end of this session of Congress next year to allow a process for the Senate to pass multiple military nominations together. It would not apply to other nominations.
To go into effect, the Senate Rules Committee will have to consider the temporary rules change and send it to the Senate floor, where the full Senate would have to vote to approve it. That process could take several weeks and would likely need Republican support to succeed.
“Patience is wearing thin with Senator Tuberville on both sides of the aisle,” Schumer said.
Schumer separately moved to hold confirmation votes as soon as Thursday on three top Pentagon officers affected by the holds — Adm. Lisa Franchetti to be the chief of naval operations, Gen. David Allvin to be chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force and Lt. Gen. Christopher Mahoney to serve as assistant commandant for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Sullivan had gathered enough signatures to force a vote on Franchetti and Allvin and spoke out in frustration about the issue at the weekly GOP lunch on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with Sullivan’s comments who requested anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has also criticized the holds, saying on Tuesday that they are “a bad idea” and he’d tried to convince the Alabama Republican to express his opposition some other way.
Tuberville said earlier on Wednesday he disagrees with the Democratic effort to try to get around his hold and and pass the nominations in large groups, arguing that the workaround would “burn the city down” and take away one of the only powers that the minority party has.
The new efforts to move the nominations come after the Marine Corps said that Gen. Eric Smith, the commandant, was hospitalized on Sunday after “suffering a medical condition" at his official residence in Washington. Smith, who is currently listed in stable condition and is recovering, was confirmed to the top job last month, but had been holding down two high-level posts for several months because of Tuberville's holds.
Smith himself was blunt about the demands of serving as both assistant commandant and acting commandant for months in the wake of Gen. David Berger’s retirement after four years as the top Marine. In public remarks in early September, Smith described his grueling schedule as he juggled the strategic and oversight responsibilities of commandant and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the personnel and management duties of the No. 2 job. “It is not sustainable,” Smith said. “What doesn’t stop is the clock. The adversary doesn’t take a pause.”
When Schumer announced the vote this week on Mahoney's nomination to be assistant commandant, he said Smith’s sudden medical emergency is “precisely the kind of avoidable emergency that Sen. Tuberville has provoked through his reckless holds.”
Tuberville has challenged Schumer to put each individual nomination on the floor. But Democrats have been hoping to force Tuberville’s hand as the number of stalled nominations has grown. “There’s an old saying in the military, leave no one behind,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed said in July.
That strategy has become more difficult as months have passed, and as Tuberville has dug in. In September, Schumer relented and allowed confirmation votes on three of the Pentagon's top officials: Gen. CQ Brown, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Randy George, Army Chief of Staff, and Smith as commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.