Several Senate Republicans have made a public show of grousing about Tommy Tuberville’s blanket holds on military nominations. They’re still not ready to sideline “Coach.”
On Tuesday, not a single Republican sided with Democrats as the Senate Rules Committee advanced a resolution that would allow mass confirmations of those nominees for the rest of the Congress, an effort that would effectively end Tuberville’s holds. Instead, Republicans sought more time to end the quarrel internally — after eight months of failing to do so.
The GOP reluctance Tuesday illustrates the tough spot the former college football coach put his party in: Republicans are loath to side with Democrats in a fight that’s wedged them between the military and anti-abortion activists. And despite the unenviable position he’s put GOP senators in, they are still hesitant to throw the Alabamian overboard due to his friendly, back-slapping persona.
Republicans had the opportunity to stick it to Tuberville in committee and didn’t — though they’re likely to soon have another chance on the floor, where it really counts.
The Senate GOP is really hoping it doesn’t come to that.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) added that “nobody wants to go down that path.” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said “everybody's torn on the thing” and that she’d rather see the GOP “keep proceeding to try to find a solution.” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) echoed that he’d “like a better option” than to support the temporary rules change.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been among the most outspoken GOP opponents of Tuberville's tactics. But he opposed the measure in committee "at this particular moment," though he thanked those who worked on it and reiterated the other ways for Republicans to register their disapproval of Pentagon policy.
With hundreds of military officer nominations in the backlog, though, Republicans acknowledge a breaking point is coming. Even Tuberville has signaled he’s looking for an off-ramp, as it becomes clear that he’s testing the bounds of affability with his colleagues — and their patience.
That Tuberville's roadblock lasted so long speaks to both the outsize power that individual senators wield and the clubby and deferential culture of the Senate. Tuberville has won over fellow Republicans with his down-home charm, and they've responded by giving him tremendous latitude.
“He’s very well-liked. If he was an asshole, no one would want to help him,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “Accommodating kind of a guy. And that’s why all of us are trying to find a way that’s good for him and us.”
“His own colleagues have given him a lot of leeway,” added Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who called Tuberville a friend. “But he knows it's running thin.”
Tuberville has put a hold on every single military officer promotion until the Pentagon changes its policy of reimbursing travel costs for service members seeking an abortion. That would force Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to use copious floor time for what are normally routine nominations.
Those tactics surprised colleagues who wouldn’t expect a neophyte to grasp the Senate’s arcane rules in such a manner. But Tuberville says his playbook wasn’t some coincidence.
“I went to a lot of meetings at [the Conservative Partnership Institute] and took a lot of classes,” Tuberville said. “The thing about up here, you need to know the rules. Like playing a football game.”
Still, there is no evidence that Tuberville’s tactics are going to change the Biden administration policy. Schumer has repeatedly said he’s prepared to put the resolution to confirm nominees en masse on the floor, which would squeeze Republicans between military leaders and anti-abortion activists.
For his part, Tuberville rejects that his position puts his colleagues in a bind.
“Democrats would love to pit it against military and abortion. It's really not,” Tuberville said. “It's about the rule of law. And I don't think military people are gonna look and say ‘Oh, well they voted for abortion over this.’ That's so far from the truth.”
He hasn’t convinced all of his colleagues, some of whom tried to force confirmation of 61 individual nominees on the floor earlier this month, leading to a nasty confrontation as Tuberville blocked every single one. Then the party had an unusual closed-door conference meeting about how to get Tuberville to end his holds. Both were evident attempts from Republicans to find some way out that didn’t involve siding with Democrats.
“We’re on the same team,” Tuberville said. “They’re just mad at me. I’ve had fans mad at me all my life.”
As a first-term senator from an uncompetitive state, he’s not the sort of lawmaker that generally would ascend to political notoriety so fast. But he’s made a name for himself by wreaking havoc, grasping onto Senate rules as his cudgel in a manner more intense than even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) or former Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who also weaponized the Senate holds to try and get policy changes.
All along, his aw-shucks Coach persona has insulated him — perhaps only moderately — from a full-on blitz from his colleagues.
“He's got a winsome personality, and I think people think he's approaching this out of a deep sense of deep conviction,” Thune said. “Which I think gives him more latitude.”
“He's a really nice guy,” echoed Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who disagrees with Tuberville’s tactics. “I imagine he’s used to people yelling from the stands telling him they're doing something wrong. I don't think [coaches are] terribly influenced by what people might yell from the seats.”
Still, Tuberville may have overestimated how far his geniality could get him. Graham said “Coach was under the assumption that they’d be able to work it out.” Manchin, too, argued that “this thing got away and got ahead of him.”
“Tommy needs a way to get back off of this,” the West Virginia Democrat added.
Tuberville seems to be in agreement, repeatedly stressing that he wants to get this over with and that it's been “frustrating” that this has gone on for so long. For months, he’s criticized the Pentagon for being unwilling to negotiate with him directly as GOP leadership left him to fend on his own.
However, he says his search for a resolution is starting to yield progress, just as Democrats get closer to forcing Republicans' hand on the floor. But he wouldn't give any specifics.
“I've got something that's really working well,” Tuberville said. He declined to share any details, however: "Better not. I don't want to jinx it.”