Senate GOP leaders didn’t want it to get to this point.
They tried and tried to get Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) to lift the holds he’s placed on hundreds of military promotions — which have opened Republicans up to attacks from the Biden administration.
But their efforts have failed, and they are now in a situation where the earliest a resolution might be found is September — when lawmakers will also be busy trying to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month.
“It’s hung around for a while. I support his goals,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican. “The challenge obviously is the mechanism he used to get to the result has created some challenges. We want to figure out a way to resolve it and address that.”
“There are conversations now going on, which is good — between him and the military and others. We’ll have some time in August to work on a path forward, and hopefully we’ll find it,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been among those trying to find a resolution, Thune said. Tuberville said he and McConnell discussed the holds Wednesday, hours after the GOP leader froze and felt lightheaded in front of reporters.
“At this point, everybody’s engaged trying to figure out how to solve this,” Thune added.
Tuberville began his holds in early March to protest a new Defense Department policy to reimburse service members who must travel to seek an abortion for those travel expenses.
Six months later, the list of holds has grown to 300. Senate Republicans were hoping to find a solution before leaving Washington for five weeks — five additional weeks during which those military officers will remain in limbo, fueling Democratic attacks and frustrating the Pentagon.
One Senate Republican said finding an offramp agreeable to both Tuberville and those opposed to the holds has become a “recurring discussion” in the Senate GOP conference, and that McConnell has been personally involved in that quest.
“There’s not a lunch that goes by that we don’t talk about it,” the senator said, but added there’s “no chance of a resolution” any time soon.
Aside from the potential political and national security implications of the holds, McConnell is worried about the institutional implications.
The longtime GOP leader recently told reporters at a press conference that he is concerned this could lead to a renewed Democratic effort to change the chamber’s rules.
Despite disagreeing with Tuberville’s tactic, however, he says he recognizes it is the prerogative of any single senator to place a hold on a nominee.
Senators on both sides of the aisle for months have been musing publicly and privately about what it would take to get the Alabama Republican to set his hold aside, but have come up empty at every turn.
Initially, there had been hope that a vote on an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would reverse the abortion travel policy could do the trick, and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) led the effort.
But more recently, Tuberville has maintained that not only does any vote have to be standalone, but that the Pentagon would have to reverse its policy before any vote could be taken.
Trying to bridge that gap for lawmakers has become a herculean challenge no one has been able to complete.
Tuberville didn’t comment on efforts by Senate GOP leaders to seek a remedy, but he criticized the Biden administration and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for their lack of outreach in trying to strike a deal. He also hasn’t had any further conversations with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin since their July 17 call and said that the initial series of calls didn’t yield anything productive.
“There’s no conversation from the other side. It’s ‘our way or the highway.’ … How does that help?” Tuberville said. “They’re not worried about it, I guess. … I hate it, for the promotions and all that.”
He added that he has yet to talk to Schumer, who has refused to use up floor time moving the nominees through regular order because he believes it is the Senate GOP’s job to figure a way out of the maze of military holds.
“This is the responsibility of the Republican Senate caucus. … It’s up to them. I think in August, pressure will mount on Tuberville, and I think the Republicans are feeling that heat,” Schumer said late Thursday. “He’s boxing himself into a corner.”
But Democrats are trying to increase that pressure, with President Biden on Thursday night laying into the Alabama Republican and arguing his holds are harming military readiness and creating instability within the ranks of the armed forces.
“This partisan freeze is already harming military readiness, security and leadership, and troop morale,” Biden said in remarks at the Truman Civil Rights Symposium in Washington. “Freezing pay, freezing people in place. Military families who have already sacrificed so much, unsure of where and when they change stations, unable to get housing or start their kids in the new school.”
Senate Democrats also took to the floor before and after the NDAA vote Thursday to criticize their GOP colleague. Since the hold was put into place, Democratic senators have made 12 attempts to move the military promotions in bloc via unanimous request.
Perhaps adding to the difficulty, Tuberville has received a boost in support from voters at home and from conservative corners of the Senate GOP conference who believe he is making the right call, albeit a difficult one.
They also argue that if Senate Democrats truly want to move on some of the nominations, they can start to do so via regular order — a move Democrats have avoided in order to not set precedent.
“Democrats think they have a winning political thing on this. I don’t think they do, and I think Sen. Tuberville morally is in the right position with regard to the issue of abortion,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said. “The [Defense] Department has just as much of a responsibility to find a path forward as any single member does, and I’m not seeing the Department try to work in any fashion other than to simply put pressure on Sen. Tuberville.”
“They’re not trying to find a path forward. They think this is one of those items where if they keep putting pressure on him, he’ll cave, and I don’t think he will,” Rounds continued. “On the issue, he’s correct.”
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