Republican senators angrily challenged senator Tommy Tuberville on his blockade of almost 400 military officers on Wednesday evening, taking over the Senate floor for hours to call for individual confirmation votes after a monthslong stalemate.
Mr Tuberville stood and objected over and over again, extending his holds on the military confirmations and promotions with no immediate resolution in sight. But the extraordinary confrontation between Republicans, boiling over nine months after Mr Tuberville first announced the holds over a Pentagon abortion policy, escalated the standoff as Defense Department officials have repeatedly said the backlog of officials needing confirmation could endanger national security.
Mr Sullivan said if the standoff continues and officers leave the military, MrTuberville's blockade will be remembered as a "national security suicide mission.”
South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham told Mr Tuberville, who mostly sat quiet and alone as they talked, that he should sue the military if he thinks the policy is illegal. “That’s how you handle these things,” Mr Graham said.
After Mr Tuberville objected to a vote on a two-star general nominated to be a deputy commander in the Air Force, Mr Graham turned and faced him. “You just denied this lady a promotion," Mr Graham said angrily to Mr Tuberville. "You did that.”
Mr Tuberville said on Wednesday there is “zero chance” he will drop the holds. Despite several high-level vacancies and the growing backlog of nominations, he has said he will continue to hold the nominees up unless the Pentagon ends — or puts to a vote in Congress — its new policy of paying for travel when a service member has to go out of state to get an abortion or other reproductive care. President Joe Biden's administration instituted the policy after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to an abortion, and some states have limited or banned the procedure.
“I cannot simply sit idly by while the Biden administration injects politics in our military from the White House and spends taxpayers' dollars on abortion," Mr Tuberville said.
Showing obvious frustration and frequent flashes of anger, the Republican senators — Sullivan, Graham, Iowa senator Joni Ernst, Indiana senator Todd Young and others — read lengthy biographies and praised individual nominees as they called for vote after vote. They said they agree with Mr Tuberville on the policy, but questioned — as Democrats have for months — why he would hold up the highest ranks of the US military.
Mr Sullivan said Mr Tuberville is “100 per cent wrong” that his holds are not affecting military readiness. Ms Ernst said the nominees are being used as “political pawns.” Utah senator Mitt Romney advised Mr Tuberville to try to negotiate an end to the standoff. All of them warned that good people would leave military service if the blockade continues.
As the night wore on, Mr Sullivan and Ms Ernst — herself a former commander in the US Army Reserve and Iowa Army National Guard — continued to bring up new nominations and appeared to become increasingly frustrated. They noted that they were bringing up the nominations “one by one” as Mr Tuberville had once called for, and asked why he wouldn't allow them to go forward. Mr Tuberville did not answer.
“We all know it is wrong,” Mr Sullivan said about three hours in, openly wondering if Mr Tuberville might eventually change his mind. “It is wrong!”
The GOP effort to move the nominations came after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, said on Wednesday morning they are trying a new workaround to confirm the officers. Mr Schumer said the Senate will consider a resolution in the near future that would allow the quick confirmation of the now nearly 400 officers up for promotion or nominated for another senior job.
The resolution by Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed and Independent senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona would tweak the rules until the end of this session of Congress next year to allow a process for the Senate to pass multiple military nominations together. It would not apply to other nominations.
To go into effect, the Senate Rules Committee will have to consider the temporary rules change and send it to the Senate floor, where the full Senate would have to vote to approve it. That process could take several weeks and would likely need Republican support to succeed.
“Patience is wearing thin with Senator Tuberville on both sides of the aisle,” Mr Schumer said.
Mr Schumer separately moved to hold confirmation votes as soon as Thursday on three top Pentagon officers affected by the holds — Admiral Lisa Franchetti to be the chief of naval operations, General David Allvin to be chief of staff of the US Air Force and Lt General Christopher Mahoney to serve as assistant commandant for the US Marine Corps.
Mr Sullivan had gathered enough signatures to force a vote on Franchetti and Allvin and spoke out in frustration about the issue at the weekly GOP lunch on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with Sullivan’s comments who requested anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has also criticized the holds, saying on Tuesday that they are “a bad idea” and he’d tried to convince the Alabama Republican to express his opposition some other way.
Mr Tuberville said he disagrees with the effort to try to get around his hold and pass the nominations in large groups, arguing that the workaround would “burn the city down” and take away one of the only powers that the minority party has.
The new efforts to get around Mr Tuberville's holds come after the Marine Corps said that General Eric Smith, the commandant, was hospitalized on Sunday after “suffering a medical condition" at his official residence in Washington. General Smith, who is currently listed in stable condition and is recovering, was confirmed to the top job last month, but had been holding down two high-level posts for several months because of Tuberville's holds.
General Smith himself was blunt about the demands of serving as both assistant commandant and acting commandant for months in the wake of General David Berger’s retirement after four years as the top Marine. In public remarks in early September, General Smith described his grueling schedule as he juggled the strategic and oversight responsibilities of commandant and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the personnel and management duties of the No 2 job. “It is not sustainable,” General Smith said. “What doesn’t stop is the clock. The adversary doesn’t take a pause.”
When Mr Schumer announced the vote this week on Mahoney's nomination to be assistant commandant, he said Smith’s sudden medical emergency is “precisely the kind of avoidable emergency that Senator Tuberville has provoked through his reckless holds.”
The Alabama senator has challenged Schumer to put each individual nomination on the floor. But Democrats have been hoping to force Mr Tuberville’s hand as the number of stalled nominations has grown. “There’s an old saying in the military, leave no one behind,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed said in July.
That strategy has become more difficult as months have passed, and as Tuberville has dug in. In September, Schumer relented and allowed confirmation votes on three of the Pentagon's top officials: General CQ Brown, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Randy George, Army Chief of Staff, and General Smith as commandant of the US Marine Corps.
A host of military officers have spoken out about the damage of the delays for service members. While Mr Tuberville’s holds are focused on all general and flag officers, they carry career impacts on the military’s younger rising officers. Until each general or admiral is confirmed, it blocks an opportunity for a more junior officer to rise.
“Every day that Sen. Tuberville continues his blanket holds our military preparedness is degraded,” Schumer said.