Inside Tommy Tuberville's unrelenting military holds

Sen. Tommy Tuberville
Sen. Tommy Tuberville Illustrated / Getty Images
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When Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) launched his Senate campaign against Democratic incumbent Sen. Doug Jones in 2020, he did so on the promise to "support a strong and robust military" by providing the armed forces the "tools and resources they need to protect Americans at home and abroad." Once elected, however, Tuberville has instead staked a considerable portion of his first term in office on denying the Pentagon one of its most fundamental, vital resources: qualified personnel.

Angry over the Defense Department's policy of covering costs for service members to travel from states banning abortions to those which allow the procedure, Tuberville has blocked more than 250 Pentagon nominations and promotions since early this spring, using the Senate's informal "hold" process — a practice dubbed the "silent filibuster" for empowering a single lawmaker to effectively kill a proposed measure or nomination before it reaches the Senate floor. That effort seemingly reached a boiling point this week with the retirement of Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, for whom there is no permanent successor thanks to Tuberville's military holds; for the first time in more than a century, the Marine Corps stands without a congressionally approved leader. Nevertheless, Tuberville has refused to abandon his military holds, telling CNN's Kaitlin Collins on Monday that as a member of the Senate minority, "the only power we have is to put a hold on something."

With Pentagon officials, Democrats — including, as of Thursday, President Biden himself — and even some of Tuberville's fellow Republicans speaking out against the holds, what's really at stake here?

"Totally irresponsible"

Speaking at a joint press conference alongside Finnish President Sauli Niinistö this week, Biden blasted Tuberville's holds as "totally irresponsible" and "ridiculous," claiming the senator is "jeopardizing U.S. security with what he's doing."

Biden's comments come as part of what appeared to be a coordinated administration push to pressure Tuberville into relenting, with the White House sending a memo to "interested parties" that same day. Claiming the military holds have elicited "barely a sound from his GOP colleagues," White House communications adviser Andrew Bates wrote that Tuberville was not only "exploiting service members" but, echoing Biden's remarks, was ultimately detrimental to the country's overall national security readiness.

The Pentagon has been similarly outspoken, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin highlighting the need for "stable and orderly leadership transitions" during Gen. Berger's retirement ceremony. "I remain confident that all Americans can come together to agree on that basic obligation to those who keep us safe," Austin said. Previously Austin had described Tuberville's holds as causing "a ripple effect in the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be."

Speaking with CNN on Thursday, Austin reiterated "this is a national security issue. It's a readiness issue. And, we shouldn't kid ourselves," while claiming that, contrary to Tuberville's objections, "I don't have an abortion policy, I have an access to non-covered reproductive health care policy." Pointing out that "One in five of my troops […] is a woman," Austin added that "our women provide tremendous value to this force and I think we need to do everything we can to take care of them."

For his part, Tuberville has insisted his holds are as much about legislative constitutionality as they are about an objection to the Defense Department's health-care policies established in the wake of the Supreme Court's anti-abortion Dobbs ruling in 2022. "Either follow the law or change the law," Tuberville tweeted following Biden's public criticism. "If Democrats can't pass legislation to authorize the abortion policy, then it shouldn't be the policy."

"Careful not to deploy a pressure campaign, but instead understand what he's aiming to accomplish," CNN reported, a number of Tuberville's Republican colleagues have met with him in recent weeks, offering a number of legislative off-ramps to avoid the ongoing blanket hold on military appointments and promotions. Other Republican lawmakers have been more public in their opposition to Tuberville's tactics, if not his end goal. "I understand the senator's concern, but it's a dangerous world right now, and we want to make sure that we're not sacrificing readiness," Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said, while Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) urged her colleague to "narrow his holds to only policy individuals and political appointees." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was particularly blunt in his criticism of Tuberville, telling reporters in early July simply that "I don't support putting a hold on military nominations."

What happens next?

"Tuberville is getting away with it, with the complicity of his party," Law Professor and MSNBC legal analyst Joyce Vance wrote on Substack. "Every time a Republican so much as mentions support for the military, Democrats should be there to illuminate what's happening." The arch-conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal argued that Tuberville should lift his blanket holds, writing that "this is not a political winner for Republicans. President Biden knows it and is beating up Sen. Tuberville." But, the board concluded, the onus of responsibility lies with the Pentagon, which "deliberately waded into a live political fight and is mortgaging the public's trust to make a statement on social policy."

While Tuberville and Austin did speak briefly this past week, neither the White House nor the Pentagon have plans to "concede to Tuberville's demand that the administration scrap the policy unless it's codified into law," Politico reported. Instead, they are content to let "Senate Republicans take the heat for Tuberville's stance."

Political optics aside, there's debate on whether Tuberville's concerns over the number of service members who would avail themselves of the Pentagon policy is supported by data. Tuberville's claim that "we're going to have 4,000 to 5,000 [military abortions] a year because this new rule" was labeled "incorrect" by CNN, which reported the senator had "misleadingly" conflated separate data points. RAND Corporation researchers, "one of whom was directly involved in the study Tuberville cites," told CNN "that Tuberville is significantly overestimating the number of women in the military who would take advantage of the new DOD policies."

Ultimately, absent a legislative codification of the Pentagon's policy, or Tuberville relenting on his months-long holds, there remains an unpleasant path forward for lawmakers hoping to chip away at the substantial logjam of military appointments and promotions building up behind Tuberville's objections. While holds don't officially kill the nominations, they force the Senate Majority Leader to bring each nomination to the floor separately, rather than bundle them together in the ordinary unanimous consent method. That would be a long, arduous process for Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and would likely hobble a considerable portion of the rest of the Democrats' Senate agenda, and according to Politico, "Tuberville has received all of the off-ramps from the Democrats that they're prepared to give."

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