From left to right, Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, discuss the blockade of military nominees by Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. (Ashley Murray/States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — More than 300 signs dotted the lawn outside the U.S. Senate Tuesday, each bearing the name of a military nominee blocked this year by Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama in protest of a Pentagon abortion policy.
Multiple Democratic senators delivered comments Tuesday at the sign installation organized by the progressive VoteVets Political Action Committee, which has run ads against the senator’s hold on nominees.
“I literally cannot believe that Tommy Tuberville is still doing this,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said. “I hope that he comes out of that building and sees these 300 signs that are in front of us right now because every single picture, every single name, every single title represents someone who has decided to put their life on the line for our country.”
Tuberville announced to fellow Republicans during a meeting Tuesday that he plans to force a vote Wednesday on Marine Commandant nominee Gen. Eric M. Smith, according to Tuberville’s spokesperson.
While the Alabama senator has no plans to release his blanket freeze on nominees, he will attempt to push Smith’s nomination to the floor individually — a move that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has refused to take because of concerns over floor time.
Tuberville opposes the Department of Defense policy that grants leave and travel allowances for service members seeking reproductive care that is not covered by the federal government. Those services can include in vitro fertilization, egg retrieval or abortion.
The senators spoke Tuesday facing the hundreds of white lawn signs — resembling a memorial display. Each showed the nominee’s photo and rank alongside the hashtag #ConfirmThemToday.
Tuberville and Republicans are “sabotaging” the leadership nominations, said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“They are injecting partisanship and politics into what should be clearly a meritorious decision. All of these men and women have earned their promotions,” Reed said.
Reed and Klobuchar were joined in delivering remarks by Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.
Signs elevated on easels behind the senators showed some of the highest ranking nominees delayed by Tuberville. They included Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff nominee Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Chief of Staff of the Army nominee Randy A. George and nominee to be Chief of Staff of the Air Force David W. Allvin and Smith.
Admiral Lisa Franchetti, the first woman to be nominated for Chief of Naval Operations, is also among the nominees waiting for confirmation.
Tuberville’s hold on the Senate’s unanimous consent of the nominees has lasted longer than six months.
The routine unanimous process for nominations allows senators to approve hundreds of military promotions simultaneously rather than bringing them to the floor for individual votes, which could take up to three months, according to a calculation provided to the Senate Committee on Armed Services by the Congressional Research Service.
‘Coach’ sees support
The Alabama lawmaker and former Auburn University football coach has refused to budge.
“Coach is strongly encouraged by the support he is receiving from conservatives across the country and more than 5,000 veterans who have written in support of him,” Tuberville’s spokesperson Steve Stafford said in a statement Tuesday following the Senate Democrats’ demonstration with VoteVets.
In July, Tuberville’s office promoted a letter in support of his hold that included 61 pages of co-signers. Lead signatures included a handful of Republican members of Congress who are veterans as well as retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who served as national security adviser under former President Donald Trump and supported the false claim that Trump won the 2020 election.
Tuberville maintains the Defense policy on leave and travel allowances for abortion is illegal.
He has said he would drop his hold on the nominees if Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin rescinds the policy, which the Pentagon announced in February.
He has also begun calling on Schumer to begin bringing nominations to the floor individually.
They are injecting partisanship and politics into what should be clearly a meritorious decision. All of these men and women have earned their promotions.
– U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee
The Pentagon announced the policy in the months following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down the constitutional right to an abortion. The ruling triggered several states to tighten regulations or all but ban the practice.
The Defense Department says the policy is not illegal and that service members stationed where certain services are unavailable or severely restricted “should not be disadvantaged in accessing health care due to their patriotic service,” Austin wrote in a July 18 letter to Reed.
Roughly 80,000 female service members are stationed in locations either without access or severely restricted access to non-covered reproductive care, like elective abortions, according to a September 2022 report published by the think tank RAND.
Austin and defense officials have warned that the delayed promotions are a threat to national security.
On Tuesday, Klobuchar and Duckworth highlighted that among the delayed nominees are the U.S. military representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and the head of U.S. Cyber Command.
“He is holding up the head of the Pacific Air Command,” Klobuchar added, “at a time when we’re seeing not just China saber-rattling but when we’re seeing (Russian President) Vladimir Putin welcome (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un to a meeting.”
Tuberville’s office publicized a September Washington Times article that quoted Gen. Charles Flynn, commander of the Hawaii-based U.S. Army-Pacific, saying he hadn’t noticed any “practical challenges” resulting from the hold.
On Monday, the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization called on Tuberville to stop delaying promotions.
“The line in the sand for the VFW is simple: Political disputes must be handled by politicians — not within the ranks of the all-volunteer force. Sen. Tuberville’s hold on these routine promotions has consequences up and down the active-duty force that will take years to fix,” VFW’s national commander Duane Sarmiento wrote. “By sending this letter, the VFW is making our voice very clear — this is not the way Congress should do business.”
The secretaries of the Air Force, Army and Navy on Sept. 4 published a joint op-ed in the Washington Post decrying the delay as “unfair to these military leaders and their families.”
“Each of us has seen the stress this hold is inflicting up and down the chain of command, whether in the halls of the Pentagon or at bases and outposts around the world,” secretaries Carlos Del Toro, Frank Kendall and Christine Wormuth wrote.
As of mid-September, 319 officers general and flag officer nominations have been held up in the Senate. If the holds don’t lift by the end of the year, nearly 650 of the more than 850 general and flag officer nominations will be affected, according to a Department of Defense official.
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