Democratic Plan to End Senate Blockade of Military Promotions Takes Critical Step Forward

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talks to reporters as he and other senators arrive at the chamber for votes, at the Capitol in Washington, Sept. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A Democratic-sponsored plan to break the blockade Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has placed against senior military promotions has advanced out of committee, setting up a showdown on the Senate floor that could lead to hundreds of generals and admirals getting confirmed after a nearly nine-month wait.

The Senate Rules Committee voted along party lines on Tuesday afternoon to advance the "standing order resolution" to circumvent Tuberville's hold on general and flag officer nominees.

While the measure advanced out of committee, it is still unclear if it will have enough votes to pass on the Senate floor. At least nine Republicans need to support it for it to pass the full Senate, and so far, no Republicans have publicly committed to voting for it.

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Still, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who sits on the Rules Committee, left the door open to supporting the resolution later even as he voted against it Tuesday.

"Ultimately, the best path forward for everyone involved will be one that allows us to clear the nominations backlog and preserve our substantive opposition to the Biden administration's atrocious policy," said McConnell, who lamented that Tuberville has "unfortunately" targeted career military officers with no say in policy.

"Productive discussions on that front are ongoing, and I'm of the mind that we ought to allow them to continue," McConnell added. "So I appreciate the work put into the standing order proposal that the committee is considering, but I'm going to oppose taking that route at this particular moment."

The resolution is essentially a temporary change to Senate rules that would allow the chamber to take up most military nominees together in a single vote, rather than needing to vote on each nominee individually. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders would still be subject to individual votes. The rule change would last through the end of 2024.

The change would defang Tuberville's hold by eliminating the months of floor time it would take to confirm all 452 nominees whose promotions are now being delayed.

Since late February, Tuberville has prevented quick confirmation of all nominees to be one-star generals and admirals and above in protest of the Pentagon policy of covering travel and leave for service members seeking abortions. The hold does not prevent the Senate from confirming nominees, but blocks the chamber from approving them in batches in voice votes as it typically does for apolitical military promotions.

Warning of the time-consuming process to confirm hundreds of nominees and wary of setting a precedent that could encourage future holds, Democrats have resisted having individual roll-call votes on all but six nominees since Tuberville's blockade began -- the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, and the assistant commandant of the Marines.

Efforts to end the standoff accelerated after Marine Corps commandant Gen. Eric Smith suffered a cardiac arrest late last month, putting into stark relief the leadership vacuum atop the military and the stress officers are under to ensure no job goes undone.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also a Rules Committee member, vowed to bring the rules change to the Senate floor for a vote "shortly."

"Every single one of us here, not just Sen. Tuberville, has issues that we feel totally passionate about, that we feel are morally right," Schumer said. "If every one of us had the temerity, the recklessness to do what Sen. Tuberville has done, we'd have no military."

But even while some Senate Republicans are increasingly publicly frustrated with Tuberville's blockade, they have been wary of embracing the Democratic workaround and potentially setting a precedent of eroding the power of individual senators.

Five Republican senators who confronted Tuberville on the Senate floor earlier this month have not ruled out supporting the rule change but have said they want to exhaust every other option first. A closed-door meeting between Senate Republicans last week ended with Tuberville saying he would consider his options to end the blockade, but he has so far not announced any decisions.

Ahead of Tuesday's Rules Committee meeting, a group of 27 Republicans sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin renewing their call to repeal the abortion policy. The letter, which was organized by Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., was signed by three of the five senators who confronted Tuberville.

"Our men and women in uniform deserve Senate-confirmed leadership but the current situation began with your original sin of promulgating the policy," the letter said. "Seeking to circumvent the Senate prerogative of the informal 'hold' practice without addressing the underlying causes -- the novel policy and the subsequent refusal of the majority to bring these nominees to the floor -- will not ultimately reconcile this matter. It could create a toxic precedent with lasting negative effects on future military nominations."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

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