Sen. Tuberville’s blockade of US military promotions takes a historic tradition to a radical new level – and could go beyond Congress’ August break

As Congress prepares to head into its August 2023 break, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a Republican from Alabama, shows no signs of ending his five-month-long hold on military promotions for several hundred senior officers, namely generals and admirals.

Tuberville is blocking the Senate from considering their nominations because he opposes a Defense Department policy to reimburse travel expenses for military personnel who have to leave their states to get abortions or other reproductive care.

The policy was put in place after the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned previous Supreme Court rulings affirming federal protections for abortion and returned the responsibility of passing abortion laws to the states.

A U.S. senator has the prerogative of placing what is called a hold on a measure, preventing the Senate from acting on that measure.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has characterized Tuberville’s hold as a threat to national defense. Senate Democrats have called him reckless, and more than 550 military families petitioned Tuberville and Senate leaders to end the stalemate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, has said he does not support a hold on military nominations.

But, so far, Tuberville isn’t budging.

A man wearing a dark suit walks toward a lectern, carrying a white binder in his right hand and paper and a pen in his left. He is fallowed by a man wearing a brown military uniform, carrying papers clutched under his left arm. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin departs a news briefing on July 18, 2023, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, right, also leaves. Win McNamee/Getty Images

No monopoly on Senate holds

The practice of senators placing holds on legislation has become more frequent in recent decades. But it is not a practice confined to lawmakers of one party.

Republican Sen. J. D. Vance of Ohio placed a hold on the confirmation of Justice Department officials to protest the federal indictment of former president Donald J. Trump. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is using the same tactic to block President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the National Institute of Health until the Biden administration delivers a plan to lower prescription drug prices. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia will not approve any nominees for positions in the Environmental Protection Agency because he opposes proposed regulations to limit power plant emissions. The holds these senators are using make a connection between the agencies the senators want to take an action and the agencies’ nominees.

Tuberville is using a hold to get the Senate to vote on a bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire that, if passed, would make the Defense Department’s policy law. In that case, Tuberville said he would relinquish his hold. If the bill fails, he wants the Defense Department to end the policy on reimbursement for travel related to reproductive care.

There are ways to circumvent Tuberville’s hold, specifically through one-by-one hearings that sidestep the collective promotion process but that would take months, and the August 2023 recess begins on July 31.

Holding promotions hostage

This is not the first time senators have used the promotion process to object to military policy or practice. But, in most cases, those objections pertained to specific individuals.

Perhaps the most obvious cases occurred during the Civil War, when the Republican senators most committed to ending the war and ending slavery dragged their heels over promotions as a way to push that agenda.

General George G. Meade is perhaps best known as the victorious U.S. general at the battle of Gettysburg. You might think that leading the army that defeated Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the war’s most famous battle would mean Meade would have no problem securing a well-deserved promotion.

But that was not the case. Meade’s handling of his forces at Gettysburg came under criticism from a congressional committee – the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War – as well as some of his fellow generals, who wanted to highlight their own contributions, while diminishing his.

Essential to that scrutiny was that Meade had a reputation as a Democrat who was not an enthusiastic supporter of emancipation as a war aim. His detractors, including committee members and several generals, embraced the destruction of slavery and wanted war to be waged vigorously against Confederate civilians as well as enemy forces.

A street-level view of a five-sided office building. The Pentagon building, located in Arlington County, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington. Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

As a result, Meade’s promotion to major general in the regular army – a rank that would persist after the war – ran into snags, largely because of concern that if Meade were nominated, the Senate would not confirm him.

Although General Ulysses S. Grant repeatedly pushed for Meade’s promotion, it would not be until November 1864, after President Abraham Lincoln was safely reelected, that Meade’s name was presented for confirmation, according to the book “Meade of Gettysburg.” The Senate finally approved the promotion in February 1865, just two months before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House.

Other army promotions faced similar obstacles. Even Grant’s elevation to lieutenant general in the winter of 1863-1864 proved a struggle, as Congress wrangled over the wording of the bill that reestablished that rank. Some Republicans wanted to delay the promotion until the end of the war; others wanted to force Lincoln to nominate Grant for the new rank. It took over 11 weeks just to pass the bill, and Grant accepted his commission in March 1864, some three months after the bill was introduced.

These cases involve individuals, albeit in high positions, and in many cases political debate over the promotions involved discussions of their presumed support for the destruction of slavery as a war aim.

Tuberville’s actions are not focused in the way those previous cases were. He is blocking consideration of all nominations because of an unrelated Defense Department policy. This public obstruction spotlights how Senate rules, written and unwritten, offer opportunities for individual senators to impede the legislative process until their demands are met.


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