Senator Tuberville: No truce over military blockade on abortion

Tommy Tuberville in hearing
Not all Republicans are in favour of Mr Tuberville's tactics

Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville's block on promotions for senior US military officers is entering its eighth month, causing growing headaches for the armed forces and prompting a new chorus of condemnation.

On Monday, the civilian heads of the US Army, Navy and Air Force penned an opinion column in the Washington Post accusing the Alabama senator of "putting our national security at risk".

"Any claim that holding up the promotions of top officers does not directly damage the military is wrong - plain and simple," the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, all appointed by President Joe Biden, wrote.

Mr Tuberville placed an across-the-board hold on what had been a routine approval procedure for military personnel in an effort to force the Biden administration's defence department to rescind a policy of leave and expense reimbursement for service members and their dependents travelling for abortions.

The American football coach-turned-politician has said that Congress should have a vote on the proposed abortion policy, rather than putting it in the hands of the secretary of defence, a Biden political appointee.

"I'm not going to change my mind," Mr Tuberville said in a recent television interview. "They have not tried to meet me in the middle. They have not tried to compromise."

Mr Tuberville has delayed the approval of more than 300 military appointments and promotions - a number that is projected to double by the end of the year. The top leadership positions in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps are currently being filled by lower-ranked officers serving on an interim basis.

"There is a real readiness impact to all of this, and that concerns me," says Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark Milley. "The sooner we can get to a resolution, I think the better."Mr Milley is retiring at the end of his month, and the confirmation of his replacement has also been delayed by Mr Tuberville.

The defence department's policy was put in place after more than a dozen US states enacted abortion bans following last year's landmark Supreme Court decision removing national protections for such procedures.

Mr Tuberville said he had warned Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin that he opposed the policy when it was proposed - but was ignored. And so he took action.

In the US Senate, individual lawmakers have considerable power to grind the legislative process to a halt.

Politicians on both sides have used their individual privileges to stall consideration of bills and sandbag judicial and executive branch appointees. Mr Tuberville's efforts, however, are unique in their duration and their target.

Both Republicans and Democrats have traditionally been wary of being characterised as "soft" on US national defence or unsupportive of the needs of American military personnel. The Alabama senator appears unique in that he has been undeterred by such concerns.

The Democratic leadership in Congress could bring each military promotion to a vote one-by-one, which Mr Tuberville says he would support.

Doing so, however, would break with Senate precedent and take time away from consideration of the judicial and Biden administration appointments that many Republicans in the chamber are also attempting to delay.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, has said an individual approach is unworkable.

"The bottom line is this is a problem created by Republicans, and it's up to them to solve it," he said.

For now, Republicans in Congress appear divided on how to handle the Alabama senator's one-man faceoff with the military and the Biden administration.

Some, like Utah Senator Mike Lee, have pointed the finger at Secretary of Defence Austin.

"If you want to change federal law to allow the use of Department of Defense resources for abortion, run for Congress," he wrote in a social media post. "Stop trying to circumvent that law as secretary of defense."

Others, including South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, have said that while they oppose the Pentagon policy, they do not approve of Mr Tuberville's tactics.

"It's time to get these people promoted," he said.

Mr Tuberville has said that while he was home in Alabama during the recent Senate recess, he heard little criticism from his constituents and received hardly any direct contact from military and Biden administration officials.

Even as the Biden administration and its military officials have stepped up pressure on the Alabama senator, there appears to be little room for either side to back down while still saving political face in what has become a very public standoff.

"I'm hoping that the conversations that occur this week and the conversations that Senator Tuberville has had with the military leadership will lead to a breakthrough at some point," said John Thune, the second-ranking member of the Republican Senate leadership team.

With senators back in Washington and a possible government shutdown looming at the end of October soon to dominate legislative attention, "hope" appears to be all that those looking for a speedy resolution to the impasse have left.