Tuberville stands down, lets Senate approve promotions

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to media after a Senate Democratic policy luncheon, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to media after a Senate Democratic policy luncheon, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)

WASHINGTON -- The Senate in a single stroke Tuesday approved about 425 military promotions after Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama ended a monthslong blockade of nominations over his opposition to a Pentagon abortion policy.

Tuberville had been under pressure from members of both sides of the political aisle to end his holds as senators complained about the toll it was taking on servicemembers and their families, and on military readiness.

President Joe Biden called the Senate's action long overdue and said the military confirmations should never have been held up.

"In the end, this was all pointless. Senator Tuberville, and the Republicans who stood with him, needlessly hurt hundreds of servicemembers and military families and threatened our national security -- all to push a partisan agenda. I hope no one forgets what he did," Biden said in a statement released by the White House.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., teed up the military confirmations for a vote a few hours after Tuberville emerged from a closed-door lunch with fellow GOP senators and told reporters that he's "not going to hold the promotions of these people any longer." He said holds would continue, however, for about 11 of the highest-ranking military officers, those who would be promoted to what he described as the four-star level or above.

There were 451 military officers affected by the holds as of Nov. 27. It's a stance that had left key national security positions unfilled and military families with an uncertain path forward.

Tuberville was blocking the nominations in opposition to Pentagon rules that allow travel reimbursement when a servicemember has to go out of state to get an abortion or other reproductive care. The Biden administration instituted the new rules after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to an abortion, and some states have limited or banned the procedure.

"Well, certainly we're encouraged by the news," Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a briefing Tuesday. "We continue to stay engaged with Senator Tuberville in the Senate directly, to urge that all holds on all our general flag officer nominations be lifted."

Critics said Tuberville's tactics were a mistake because he was blocking the promotions of people who had nothing to do with the policy he opposed.

"Why are we punishing American heroes who have nothing to do with the dispute?" said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. "Remember, we are against the Biden abortion travel policy. But why are we punishing people who have nothing to do with the dispute and if they get confirmed can't fix it? No one has had an answer for that question because there is no answer."

Tuberville's hold led to a remarkably public confrontation with some of his GOP colleagues, who staged a late-night attempt last month to promote the officers he had blocked, forcing Tuberville to personally object to each one. Republican Sens. Sullivan; Joni Ernst, Iowa; Todd Young, Ind.; and Lindsey Graham, S.C., all veterans, implored Tuberville on the Senate floor to lift his hold for the sake of national security.

"No matter whether you believe it or not, Senator Tuberville, this is doing great damage to our military," Graham said then. "I don't say that lightly; I've been trying to work with you for nine months."

Behind closed doors, Republicans complained that Tuberville's blockade was hurting them politically as well, given the harm to the military and the focus on abortion, which has been a losing issue at the polls for the GOP in recent elections. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took the rare step of publicly rebuking Tuberville, saying he should not be punishing "military heroes" for a Biden administration policy. Other Republican colleagues thought Tuberville moved the goal posts of his demands, from initially just wanting a vote on the military abortion policy to demanding that it be rescinded altogether to allow promotions to go through.

For months, Tuberville said he wanted Schumer to do a full floor vote on each nominee to get around his hold, arguing that each one would enjoy bipartisan support and easily pass. But making it through the hundreds of nominees individually would take months of nonstop floor time -- a prospect Schumer ruled out. And Democrats were concerned that allowing an individual senator to effectively shut down the chamber to confirm nonpolitical nominees would set a bad precedent.

STANDING SILENT

For months, many of the military officers directly affected by Tuberville's holds declined to speak out for fear any comments would be seen as political. But as the pressures on their lives and the lives of the officers serving under them increased, they began to speak about how the uncertainty surrounding their next move was impacting not only them, but their children and spouses.

They talked about how some of their most talented junior officers were going to get out of the military because of the instability they saw around them, and they talked about how having to perform multiple roles because of so many vacancies was putting enormous additional stress on an already overworked military community.

The issue came to a head when U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Eric Smith suffered a heart attack in October, just two days after he'd talked about the stress of the holds at a military conference.

"We can't continue to do this to these good families. Some of these groups that are all for these holds, they haven't thought through the implication of the harm it's doing to real American families," he said.

In response to the holds, Democrats had vowed to take up a resolution that would allow the Senate to confirm groups of military nominees at once during the remainder of the congressional term, but Republicans worried that the change could erode the powers of the minority in the Senate.

Tuberville emerged from his meeting with GOP colleagues, saying "all of us are against a rule change in the Senate." He was adamant that "we did the right thing for the unborn and for our military" by fighting back against executive overreach. He expressed no regrets, but admitted "we didn't get as much out of it as we wanted."

"The only opportunity you got to get the people on the left up here to listen to you in the minority is to put a hold on something, and that's what we did," Tuberville said. "We didn't get the win that we wanted. We've still got a bad policy."

Tuberville said he relinquished the hold because he wanted to keep Schumer from bringing up a vote to get around his maneuver.

In the end, Schumer said Tuberville ended up failing to get anything he wanted and held it out as a warning to others who might attempt similar efforts in the future to undo policies they oppose.

"The senior senator from Alabama has nothing to show for his 10 months of delay. No law is changing in any way," Schumer said.

A senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that as of Nov. 27, Tuberville's hold had blocked 451 senior officers from promotion. They include Adm. Samuel Paparo, who is expected to take over as the next chief of the Indo-Pacific Command; Air Force Lt. Gen. Gregory Guillot, who is expected to become the four-star commander of Northern Command; and several officers who are expected to immediately take on responsibilities in the Middle East and Europe as the Biden administration manages wars in both regions.

The list of promotions on hold was expected to continue growing if Tuberville did not drop his objections, with about three-quarters of the military's more than 850 generals and admirals due to be blockaded by year's end, the senior defense official said.

Sen. Jack Reed, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from Rhode Island, said after the vote that the first thing he wanted to do was to apologize to the hundreds of officers whose promotions were stalled.

"We have to recognize in the future, we can never do this again," Reed said.

Information for this article was contributed by Kevin Freking, Lolita C. Baldor and Tara Copp of The Associated Press and by Liz Goodwin and Dan Lamothe of The Washington Post.

  photo  FILE - Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talks to reporters as he and other senators arrive at the chamber for votes, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. Tuberville announced on Tuesday, Dec. 5, that hes ending his blockade of hundreds of military promotions, following heavy criticism from many of his colleagues in the Senate and clearing the way for hundreds to be approved. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)