Tommy Tuberville’s abortion-related blockade of military promotions is uncomfortably splintering both the Senate GOP and Alabama Republicans. Now they’ll spend the summer stewing about it.
The Alabama senator refused to allow any of the more than 250 stalled military promotions to quickly advance, retribution for the Defense Department allowing paid leave for abortions. Democrats, who could have called individual votes on the nominations over the August recess, ultimately decided it was the GOP’s responsibility to convince Tuberville. That didn’t happen, the Senate left for five weeks, and the Republican’s nearly five-month hold appears almost certain to stretch into September.
And while conservatives are mainly cheering the football coach-turned senator on, there are signs that some Republicans are having a hard time accepting the one-man blockade. Summing up the feeling back in Alabama, Rep. Jerry Carl (R-Ala.) observed: “Mixed emotions.”
“Some people like it, some people don’t understand it. Some of our older military folks aren’t really happy about it; they understand it better than anybody,” Carl said.
The episode is in some ways a microcosm of the GOP as a whole, as the party weighs how far to take its opposition to President Joe Biden and his policies heading into a presidential election. In this case, one member is using scorched-earth tactics to fight the Biden administration over abortion policy, leaving other Republicans to answer for it.
Take Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who said “everybody is asking me about this” back home. This is the time of year when military families in Alaska pack up and move to new posts, she said: “And if you don’t have the ability to move because promotions have been held up, you can’t make that happen.”
“We see the impact here because it’s very visible to us,” she said. “There’s one person who knows how to address this.”
Because of Tuberville’s blockade, the Marine Corps is now running without a commandant, the highest-ranking officer of the branch, for the first time in over 150 years. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) explored going around Tuberville’s hold and forcing a vote this week on confirming the nominee to that post, an incredibly rare move for the minority party.
Ultimately, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell successfully argued against it, in part because of the precedent it would set for the chamber’s minority party to force votes, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Senate left Thursday with no solution.
Tuberville said he is disappointed he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin could not come to terms in multiple, short phone conversations this month. But he’s otherwise unbowed by the blowback: “I don’t represent the conference, I represent the people of Alabama.”
“I have huge support. If I’d have gotten hammered … by 60-70 percent of people from my state, veterans, I mean, then you’ve got to start thinking about: ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” he explained in an interview.
He isn’t feeling that heat back home. Republicans in the ruby-red state are strongly anti-abortion, though some of his colleagues worry risking national security could be a step too far. Democrats argue if a tragedy occurs because of a stalled military promotion, the blame could fall on Tuberville and his allies.
But opposing Tuberville isn’t great optics for Alabama Republicans either. He’s stuck them right between a Biden administration policy they oppose and a consequential debate about national security.
“I’m kind of conflicted. I kind of like seeing them have consequences for implementing a policy I totally have nothing to do with. It’s creating political problems for them,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, arguing the Biden administration “created this situation.”
Rogers said the White House benefits from the fight, too, by giving it a chance to defend abortion rights after the fall of Roe v. Wade. As for the general response back in Alabama about Tuberville, Rogers said: “They love it. They think he’s awesome.”
“It worked for the White House because, to their base, they’re fighting for abortion rights. It worked for Republicans like Tommy Tuberville because of our base,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “It’s just not good for the American military.”
It’s a somewhat awkward position for Tuberville’s colleague, Sen. Katie Britt (R-Ala.). In a brief interview, the first-term Republican criticized the Pentagon policy but did not say whether she agreed with Tuberville’s tactics.
“We need to get the politics out of the Pentagon — that we should not be utilizing taxpayer dollars in any way shape or form to facilitate a woman who is eight months pregnant, to take the life of the child,” Britt said. Spokesperson Sean Ross said Britt’s been “consistent” in this view.
Compared to Tuberville’s multiple sparring matches with Democrats on the Senate floor, though, Britt is reserved. Rep. Barry Moore (R-Ala.), a member of the ultra-right House Freedom Caucus, wants her to do more.
“All of the Senate ought to wake up, certainly our delegation, and say we’re with Coach on this,” Moore said. “We all should be engaged.”
Most other Alabama Republicans, however, shrugged off the suggestion that Britt should more forcefully join Tuberville’s efforts. First-term Rep. Dale Strong (R-Ala.) said simply: “He’s got his decisions he’s got to make, she’s got hers.” Because of Senate rules, it wouldn’t make much difference if Tuberville had other senators holding up nominees alongside him.
“Every member makes individual decisions about what they are doing. I don’t think Katie needs to get involved. Tommy is being very effective,” echoed Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), a member of GOP leadership.
Tuberville has gotten some backup from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and other conservatives. They see little reason to back down: They disagree with the Pentagon policy and how it was unilaterally implemented, and if the Pentagon wants promotions, then they say it can change its policy.
“I don’t really care what other people think. I’m very comfortable with Sen. Tuberville’s position,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.). “It’s within the military’s complete control to fix this and they won’t.”
At this point, it’s hard to imagine either Tuberville or the Defense Department changing course. Tuberville has faced gentle reproaches from some Republicans who disagree with his methods, which punishes military nominees who had no hand in creating the abortion policy.
Internally, McConnell has argued that while protecting individual senator’s rights is important, going too far could force the Democratic majority to change the rules and strip those rights away, according to a person familiar with the conversations. Still, Tuberville said McConnell has remained somewhat supportive.
“He’s come to me and said, ‘Hey, you gotta do what you got to do. Now, I might not do it the way you do it,’” Tuberville recalled.