Tommy Tuberville’s blockade on military promotions, explained

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) departs the Senate chamber following a vote at the U.S. Capitol.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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The U.S. military is one of few American institutions that still reliably receives bipartisan support in Congress.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers, eager to demonstrate their commitment to the defense apparatus, often brag about backing military leaders’ nominations and voting for bills that keep the military functioning.

But one GOP senator recently capsized this tradition by successfully holding up a slate of President Biden’s military nominations. His reason? Abortion access.


As of late August, 301 military nominations were on hold, including 14 positions based in California, according to figures shared by the Pentagon.

Hello, friends. I’m Erin B. Logan, a reporter covering national politics for the L.A. Times. This week we are going to discuss how one Alabama senator’s campaign against abortion access is affecting America’s military.

Abortion and defense collide

When the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority overturned the landmark case that protected abortion rights, patients were left to figure out when and where they could access the medical procedure. Because some states have banned pregnancy termination completely and access has not changed in others, many patients are forced to travel if they want to obtain an abortion.

This new patchwork is especially concerning for the Defense Department, whose service members are often bound to specific bases in specific states.

In an effort to make abortion access less complicated, the department crafted a policy to help service members and their families sidestep any restrictions that might exist in their states. The Pentagon in February said it would grant leave and reimburse service members and their families when they have to travel to access reproductive care, including abortion.

The new policy was swiftly criticized by many within the GOP. Republicans characterized the measure as too progressive, claiming it violated the Hyde Amendment, a four-decades-old ban on using federal funds to end pregnancy, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the woman. House Republicans earlier this year tried (and failed) to use a defense spending bill to block the policy.

(The Justice Department previously advised that the new policy was legal.)

The hold

In an effort to force the Pentagon to abandon its new policy, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville has for six months repeatedly objected to Biden’s nominations to military leadership, temporarily blocking them from taking their new positions. The block has affected positions throughout the ranks, including chief of staff positions at state bases.


Tuberville’s 300-plus holds have had a ripple effect throughout the military, including forcing at least 25 officers to delay their retirements. In July, 600 military spouses gave Tuberville and Senate leaders a petition lobbying for the end of the blockade.

The vacancies include leaders for three of the five military branches — the Marine Corps, Navy and Army. In an extraordinary rebuke, the secretaries for the Navy, Air Force and Army admonished the senator in an op-ed, calling his hold “dangerous” and said it is “putting our national security at risk.”

The jobs are being carried out “by acting officials without the full range of legal authorities necessary to make the decisions that will sustain the United States’ military edge,” Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro , Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth wrote Monday in a Washington Post op-ed.

“Across the services, many generals and admirals are being forced to perform two roles simultaneously,” they wrote. “The strain of this double duty places a real and unfair burden on these officers, the organizations they lead and their families.”

The Senate can sidestep the blockade by calling votes on each nomination, Steven Stafford, a spokesperson for Tuberville, told The Times in an email. “If Democrats were actually concerned about readiness, then Chuck Schumer would be scheduling votes on military nominations right now,” he said. “[Tuberville] is not blocking votes; he is forcing them.”

(Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer‘s office has previously said the process would be onerous and time-consuming.)

In a tweet, Tuberville said that he is “trying to get politics out of the military.”

“I didn’t start this,” he wrote. “The Biden Admin injected politics into the military and imposed an unlawful abortion policy on the American taxpayers.”


On Tuesday, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that “our military leaders simply want to do the job that our nation expects of them: to lead our military to protect and defend our nation.”

The latest from the fight for voting rights

—A Florida redistricting plan pushed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis violates the state constitution and is prohibited from being used for any future U.S. congressional elections since it diminishes the ability of Black voters in north Florida to pick a representative of their choice, a state judge ruled Saturday, the Associated Press reported.

—Federal judges said Tuesday that they will draft new congressional lines for Alabama after lawmakers refused to create a second district where Black voters at least came close to constituting a majority, as suggested by the court, the Associated Press reported. A designated special master will be tapped to draw new districts for the state, the judges ordered. Alabama is expected to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The latest from Washington

—First Lady Jill Biden tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday but is experiencing only mild symptoms, her spokeswoman said and the Associated Press reported. President Biden was tested for the virus after his wife’s positive test, but his results were negative.

—An Indian family that tried to immigrate to the U.S. legally ended up separated and in legal limbo, Times writer Andrea Castillo reported. Their experience shows that even people with advanced degrees, personal wealth and investments in the U.S. can have trouble navigating the nation’s immigration system.


—Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s health episodes show “no evidence” of being a stroke or seizure disorder, the Capitol physician said in a letter on Tuesday, offering little further explanation for the apparent freeze-ups that have drawn concerns about the 81-year-old’s situation, the Associated Press reported. The GOP leader froze up last week during a news conference in Kentucky, unable to respond to a question, the second such episode in a month.

The latest from California

—California lawmakers on Friday killed a bill that would hold social media platforms liable for promoting harmful content about eating disorders, self-harm and drugs, Times writer Queenie Wong reported. Senate Bill 680, which was opposed by tech companies, died in the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee as part of a marathon hearing in which lawmakers culled hundreds of bills without public debate.

—A proposed law in California to lengthen prison terms for child sex trafficking that ignited public outrage and divided Democrats this summer was changed during a critical vote on Friday to address concerns over victims potentially being prosecuted, Times writer Hannah Wiley reported. The changes were pushed by progressive Assembly Democrats in response to criminal justice reform advocates’ concerns that the bill could harm victims.

—California pharmacies make an estimated 5 million errors every year, according to the state’s Board of Pharmacy, Times writer Melody Petersen reported. Officials at the regulatory board say they can only estimate the number of errors because pharmacies are not required to report them.

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