A standoff over the Pentagon's abortion policies that is ensnaring normally routine general and flag officer promotions in the Senate is hurting service members and their families, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told senators Tuesday.
About 160 nominees for promotion to one-star general and admiral and above are snagged in a hold Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has vowed to maintain on all Defense Department civilian and senior officer nominations until the Pentagon rescinds a recently enacted policy that is intended to ease service members' access to abortion.
Over the last week, Democrats have been stepping up their pressure on Tuberville to relent; on Tuesday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., asked Austin to weigh in when he was testifying before the committee.
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"Not approving the recommendations for promotions actually creates a ripple effect through the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be," Austin said. "The effects are cumulative, and it will affect families. It will affect kids going to schools because they won't be able to change their duty station.
"It's a powerful effect and will impact on our readiness," he added.
While a single senator cannot prevent confirmations, a hold can significantly delay a confirmation since it requires the Senate to find valuable floor time for lengthy roll call votes on uncontroversial nominees who could otherwise be confirmed in a voice vote.
It has become more common in recent years for senators to place holds on civilian nominees over political differences, but Democrats say Tuberville's targeting of military nominees is unprecedented.
The 158 general and flag officer nominees awaiting a Senate vote include the nominees to take over command of the U.S. 5th Fleet in the Middle East and 7th Fleet in the Pacific, as well as the U.S. military representative to the NATO Military Committee.
Austin defended the new abortion access policies, saying they were crafted after hearing concerns from service members and senior military leaders about the nearly 80,000 female troops stationed in places with limited access to abortion.
"I really implore you to reconsider and allow our nominations to move forward," Austin told Tuberville, after Reed gave him the opportunity to respond despite Tuberville's time ending. "It will make a significant difference for our force."
Democrats have also highlighted, as did Austin on Tuesday, that if the impasse lasts for months, even more senior officers could be log-jammed, including the expected nomination of a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and new chiefs for each of the military services later this year.
"As I look forward, I have never in my almost three decades here seen so many key military positions coming up for replacement," Reed said. "If we cannot resolve the situation, we will be, in many respects, leaderless at a time of great conflict. So, I would hope we would expedite and move quickly on this front."
Tuberville first suggested in December he would place a hold on military nominations if the Pentagon proceeded with policies it proposed as a response to the Supreme Court's summer ruling that has allowed states to outlaw abortion. He followed through with his threat last month when the Pentagon formally rolled out the policies.
Under the new policies, which were slated to take effect this month, service members stationed in areas where abortion access is limited will be able to have travel expenses paid and receive up to three weeks of leave to go out of state for the procedure. The new benefits are also available to service members who want to receive fertility treatments that are not covered by military health care.
By law, the Pentagon can perform or cover abortions only if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or endangers the life of the mother. But the Pentagon maintains the new travel and leave policies, which can be used for abortions that are done for any reason, don't run afoul of the law, with Austin saying Tuesday the department is on "strong legal ground."
Tensions over the policies and Tuberville's holds are flaring ahead of a scheduled two-week recess in the Senate, which often confirms large batches of military nominees in voice votes just before it heads out of town.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who has been trying to use the issue of abortion access to convince the Pentagon to keep Space Command in his home state rather than moving it to Tuberville's state of Alabama, has gone to the Senate floor twice this month to try to confirm the nominees, but Tuberville objected each time.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also dedicated part of his floor speeches opening the Senate on Monday and Tuesday to slamming Tuberville.
"It shouldn't have to be said, but the senator from Alabama's hold of hundreds of routine military promotions is reckless, it damages the readiness of our military and puts American security in jeopardy," Schumer said Monday.
At Tuesday's hearing, Tuberville spent his entire allotted questioning time defending his holds. In a six-minute speech where he ticked off several things Republicans argue have harmed the military during the Biden administration -- including efforts to root out extremists, the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal and the now-defunct COVID-19 vaccine mandate -- Tuberville took umbrage at Democrats casting his holds as "the real crisis."
"These are promotions that the majority leader can bring to the floor at any time," Tuberville said. "I want to be clear on this: My hold has nothing to do with the Supreme Court's decision to [block] the access of abortion. This is about not forcing the taxpayers of this country to fund abortion."
Other Republicans on the committee echoed Tuberville. Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., said he would also consider placing holds on military nominees "in solidarity" with Tuberville. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, without specifically voicing support for Tuberville's holds, said she was "adamantly opposed" to the Pentagon's abortion policies.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.
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