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Democrats eye workarounds to Tuberville blockade

Frustration builds as hundreds of military promotions remain in limbo

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., is seen in the Capitol on Wednesday.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., is seen in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate returned to business this week under a cloud of tension as more than 300 military nominees remain in limbo, with some Democrats speculating about ways to get around the blockade. 

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has been blocking senior military promotions for months out of opposition to the Pentagon’s abortion policy, which reimburses servicemembers who must travel out of state to obtain reproductive health care. He has vowed to continue his holds until either the Defense Department rescinds the policy or Congress passes it into law. 

Three positions on the Joint Chiefs of Staff are currently open, with more vacancies on the way. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley is set to retire at the end of the month, and it’s far from clear whether his replacement, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown, will get a vote. 

“I am concerned the senator does not appreciate the gravity of the situation,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a Wednesday floor speech. “These positions cannot simply be filled by other officers — they can only be temporarily covered by their vice chiefs, who must also continue to cover their own jobs.”

Democratic leaders remain firmly against holding individual votes on any of the nominees, arguing that doing so would set a dangerous precedent. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said on Wednesday he would not allocate floor time to consider Brown’s nomination, even though nominations on such a senior level often get individual votes. 

“The bottom line is, this is a problem created by Republicans, and it’s up to them to solve it,” he told reporters. “We’re not going to shift the burden to Democrats.”

However, fissures are beginning to emerge among the Democratic caucus, particularly defense hawks who desperately want to see the top jobs filled as the U.S. faces an ongoing war in Ukraine and deepening tensions with China. 

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., a member of the Armed Services Committee, signaled openness to holding a vote on Brown’s nomination. 

“I want to do what’s in the best interest of our national security,” he said. “Obviously we cannot go through, now, over 300 of these promotions and nominations to these positions individually. That is not practical. But for General Brown, you know, it certainly makes sense to get him confirmed.”

And Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who also sits on Armed Services, said a Senate rules change that would make it easier for nominations to move forward has “got to be an option.”

“The Senate has very broad rules that rest upon assumption of responsibility, restraint and competence. And that’s what’s being breached in this case,” said King, who caucuses with the Democrats. “You cannot allow this to go on indefinitely.”

Meanwhile, Tuberville’s position has not budged. He suggested to reporters on Wednesday that neither congressional leaders nor Pentagon officials have tried to make headway with him directly and again reiterated a desire to vote on individual nominees. 

“I’m not holding up appointments. I’m just holding up a group at one time. They can bring them up individually quick as they can,” he said. “That’s what people don’t understand. I’m just holding up 300 at a time.”

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