Sen. Tommy Tuberville (Photo from Sen. Tuberville's Facebook page)
For more than six months, Tuberville has placed a blanket hold on the promotions of hundreds of military officers in protest of a new Pentagon policy that reimburses servicemembers for abortion-related expenses.
It was a natural question for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who served in the military and who signed a six-week abortion ban into law in Florida. Was Sen. Tommy Tuberville right to block senior military promotions, DeSantis was asked Saturday in Iowa, unless and until the Pentagon rescinds its new abortion policy?
“Yes,” DeSantis told Ralph Reed, chairman of the evangelical Faith and Freedom Coalition. “I support what he is doing.”
The standoff is perhaps the most significant fight on federal abortion policy, and it comes as Republicans struggle to navigate the political landscape after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Other presidential candidates, notably former President Trump, have stayed silent.
For more than six months, Tuberville has placed a blanket hold on the promotions of hundreds of military officers in protest of a new Pentagon policy that reimburses servicemembers for abortion-related expenses. The Biden administration argues that the Alabama Republican is aiding American enemies. Democrats are welcome to bring the new Pentagon abortion policy up for a vote itself, he has replied, or confirm the promotions one by one.
A memo released by the Congressional Research Service last week found that approving those promotions individually, rather than all at once, would consume approximately 700 hours on the Senate floor. Before the senators left for August recess, Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the blockade “profoundly insulting.”
Social conservatives like DeSantis counter that the federal government is already barred from paying for abortions, and on Saturday the Florida governor accused the Defense Department of essentially breaking the law “by funding abortion tourism with tax dollars.” When the administration makes new policy like that, he said, “Congress has to stand up and push back.”
According to the White House, the updated policy is critical for military readiness. If soldiers are stationed in states like Alabama with restrictive abortion laws, President Biden’s national security spokesman John Kirby told RealClearPolitics in July, then some servicemembers may decide to leave the military. “That means we lose talent, important talent,” he said before adding that ensuring abortion access “is just the right darn thing to do for people who raise their hand and agree to serve in the military.”
That concern has done little to stop the anti-abortion lobby from publicly rallying around Tuberville. The conservative Susan B. Anthony List has thanked the Alabama senator “and all our allies” for opposing what they called “the Biden-Harris administration’s extreme assault on the unborn.”
One of their most stalwart allies: Mike Pence.
“On day one, I’ll direct the Department of Defense to stop using taxpayer dollars to undermine pro-life laws in states around the country,” the former vice president, who supports a national abortion ban, said last Friday. “Sen Tommy Tuberville is right, and the Pentagon is wrong.”
Some anti-abortion Republicans, like former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have nevertheless accused Tuberville of “using military families as political pawns.” A military spouse herself, Haley told CNN that the hold on promotions was “a mistake” and that members of the military “sacrifice enough.”
Others, including Trump – whose super PAC heralded him as “the most pro-life president in history” – have said nothing about the standoff. But Trump did tell NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that Florida’s six-week abortion ban was “terrible.”
The Trump campaign did not return multiple RCP requests for comment about the Tuberville hold. Democrats were more than happy to tie the candidate to the current congressional impasse all the same.
“No one is shocked to see Donald Trump endorse Tommy Tuberville’s reckless political antics that put our military readiness at risk,” Biden-Harris spokesman Kevin Munoz said last month when the two men shared a stage in Alabama, adding that if Trump “cared about America’s national security,” the former president would “oppose Tuberville’s blockade of military promotions.”
But Trump never mentioned the topic of the blockade while in Alabama. On stage with Tuberville in August, he steered clear of the controversy consuming Capitol Hill.
A prominent Trump ally who served in the previous administration cautioned against reading too much into that silence, telling RCP that the former president likely believed “there’s no need of going looking for a problem that’s not your own.”
The silence hasn’t quieted fears on the left that Tuberville’s hold is part of a larger unspoken strategy.
Writing in the New Republic, Brynn Tannehill wondered if the senator wasn’t protesting Pentagon abortion policy so much as working to leave open Pentagon positions so that if reelected, the former president could “fill every senior military position simultaneously with Trump loyalists and sycophants.”