President Joe Biden has settled on a strategy for dealing with the Alabama senator who is causing chaos at the highest levels of the Pentagon: Leave it to Republicans to fix.
Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville is single-handedly blocking more than 270 military promotions over the Pentagon’s policy of paying for service members to travel to seek abortions. The monthslong hold has already left the Marine Corps without a Senate-confirmed leader for the first time in 100 years; the Army, Navy and the Joint Chiefs will be in a similar position in a matter of weeks if the issue is not resolved.
Biden weighed in on the controversy on Thursday, calling Tuberville’s actions “totally irresponsible” and the confusion surrounding the Joint Chiefs “bizarre.” But the onus is on Republicans to end the standoff, he added.
“I would be willing to talk to him if I thought there was any chance of him changing this ridiculous position. I expect the Republican Party to stand up and do something about it. It’s within their power to do that,” Biden told reporters in Helsinki, Finland.
“It’s totally irresponsible, in my view,” Biden said. “I just think that — I mean, I’m confident that the mainstream of the Republican Party no longer — does not support what he’s doing, but they got to stand up and be counted. That’s how it ends.”
Biden made public what the administration has been saying behind the scenes: The White House and the Pentagon have no plans to concede to Tuberville’s demand that the administration scrap the policy unless it’s codified into law. Instead, Biden’s team is letting Senate Republicans take the heat for Tuberville’s stance, according to a Defense Department official and Democratic lawmakers.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke by phone with Tuberville about the hold Thursday afternoon, according to a spokesperson for the senator. Tuberville initially declined a request for the meeting from Austin’s office, saying he was too busy, according to the DOD official, who was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.
“Coach said he’s grateful for the cordial and productive conversation and looks forward to continuing dialogue in the near future,” according to the spokesperson, Hannah Eddins, referring to Tuberville, a former coach at Auburn University.
The hold has mushroomed into a major problem for Republicans, many of whom are facing tough reelections next year. Team Biden plans to tap into voters’ anger after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, ending a constitutional right to the procedure. It was a major issue in the 2022 midterms and will be again next year, but Democrats have a strong edge over Republicans on which political party the public believes best represents their views on abortion, according to a KFF Health Tracking Poll.
As Republican-held states pass restrictive measures, a variety of polls show growing public support for legalized abortion and dissatisfaction with new laws that restrict it. Three in 10 voters say they will only voted for a candidate who shares their views on abortion, and while 42 percent say the Democratic Party best represents their views on abortion, only about 26 percent say the Republican Party best represents their views.
Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, are using Tuberville’s move to challenge Republicans’ reputation as strong on national defense as a parade of generals and admirals has testified that the procedural hold is hurting the nation.
“The problem is a Republican problem. It’s up to Sen. Tuberville’s party to make clear that he is harming national security and needs to put a stop to this,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told reporters Wednesday. “What Sen. Tuberville is doing undermines the defense of the United States of America. That is not a legitimate political back-and-forth. This is about our security, and we cannot afford this kind of hostage-taking. Our government cannot function.”
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and 21-year veteran of the Senate, said the issue is a political winner for Democrats.
“It’s an insult to the military that [Tuberville] claims to love, and it raises the specter of abortion once again, which is proven to be a politically a loser for moderate Republicans,” he said. “This is going to be the gift that keeps on giving. To be clear, Democrats would like to figure out a way to get these nominees confirmed, but you can’t reward a hostage taker like this by giving into his demands.”
The DOD official said Pentagon leaders are continuing to meet with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about the travel policy and Tuberville’s hold. But at this point, the person said, it’s up to the Senate “to decide the path forward.”
Tuberville also said he’s not budging. His position is that the administration policy violates the law, and he won’t relent until the Pentagon ends the policy or Democrats codify it.
“No middle ground,” he said. “They can’t change the law by memo.”
But that’s a no-go for the administration, the DOD official said.
“The department has been clear on our policy,” the official said. “We briefed members on the Hill about the policy and that we are not changing that policy.”
When it comes to the Republican intervention Democrats are seeking, Tuberville said neither Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell nor any fellow lawmakers are talking with him about resolving his holds, beyond SASC Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
McConnell broke publicly with Tuberville in May, saying he doesn’t support the tactic, and Republican lawmakers say browbeating fellow members is not McConnell’s style. For McConnell, strong-arming Tuberville also risks the appearance that he’s siding with Democrats and could inflame hard-right conservatives just as they are mounting a fight over the Pentagon abortion travel policy through the House defense policy bill debate.
“McConnell is a good guy, I like him. I don’t work for Mitch McConnell. I work for the people of this country, and I do not want a dictatorship to be run from the White House and the Pentagon,” Tuberville said. “I mean, you can’t set the law over there.”
A spokesperson for McConnell declined to comment.
Republicans note that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could bring up individual military picks for votes, including the Joint Chiefs. But one Senate Democratic aide said Tuberville has received all of the off-ramps from the Democrats that they’re prepared to give.
Beyond the meeting and a phone call between Tuberville and Austin, Senate Armed Services leaders also granted a vote last month to add Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s legislation to reverse the travel policy to the annual defense policy bill. But Tuberville rejected that path, ruling out what he sees as show votes or amendments that can be stripped out in the process of reconciling the House and Senate defense policy bills.
“At this point, Democrats are saying to Republicans, ‘Come and get your boy,’” the aide said.
Meanwhile, some Senate Democrats who are seeking reelection in states where national defense is a local issue have latched onto Tuberville’s hold and are raising the volume.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is running in the wake of a Chinese spy balloon incursion that caused concern in his state, said voters there would not take kindly to Tuberville’s freeze on top military officers.
“You want to turn the keys over to China, this is a great way to do it,” Tester said in an interview. “I think it reflects poorly on the Republican Party, and I will use it in my campaign. This is real stuff about governing that they’re allowing Tuberville to get away with.”
If a Democrat were using Tuberville’s tactics, Kaine argued, Schumer, unlike McConnell, would put a stop to it.
“It’s a Republican problem, because they’re enabling him to do it. They’re letting him do it,” Kaine said of Tuberville’s holds. “If you’re in a leadership position, you’ve got to be a leader, and they’re not doing that on the Republican side, and that’s enabling this very destructive behavior.”
There may be one last practical off-ramp coming from Republicans, when the annual defense policy bill goes to the Senate floor next week.
Ernst said she plans to offer her legislation again in the chamber, and Sen. Lindsey Graham..