Tuberville ends blockade of most military nominees

FILE - Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talks to reporters as he and other senators arrive at the chamber for votes, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. Tuberville announced on Tuesday, Dec. 5, that hes ending his blockade of hundreds of military promotions, following heavy criticism from many of his colleagues in the Senate and clearing the way for hundreds to be approved. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talks to reporters as he and other senators arrive at the chamber for votes, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. Tuberville announced on Tuesday, Dec. 5, that hes ending his blockade of hundreds of military promotions, following heavy criticism from many of his colleagues in the Senate and clearing the way for hundreds to be approved. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sen. Tommy Tuberville announced Tuesday he's ending his blockade of hundreds of military promotions, following heavy criticism from many of his colleagues about the toll it was taking on military families and clearing the way for hundreds of nominations to be approved soon.

Tuberville's blockade of military promotions was over a dispute about a Pentagon abortion policy. The Alabama Republican said Tuesday he's "not going to hold the promotions of these people any longer." He said holds would continue, however, for about 11 of the highest-ranking military officers, those who would be promoted to what he described as the four-star level or above.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said a vote on the nominations could come quickly, possibly even in the afternoon.

There were 451 military officers affected by the holds as of Nov. 27. It's a stance that has left key national security positions unfilled and military families with an uncertain path forward.

Tuberville was blocking the nominations in opposition to Pentagon rules that allow travel reimbursement when a service member has to go out of state to get an abortion or other reproductive care. President Joe Biden's administration instituted the new rules after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to an abortion, and some states have limited or banned the procedure.

"Well, certainly we're encouraged by the news," Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a briefing Tuesday. "We continue to stay engaged with Senator Tuberville in the Senate directly, to urge that all holds on all our general flag officer nominations be lifted."

Critics said Tuberville's ire was misplaced and he was blocking the promotions of people who had nothing to do with the policy he opposed.

"Why are we punishing American heroes who have nothing to with the dispute?" said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. "Remember we are against the Biden abortion travel policy, but why are we punishing people who have nothing to do with the dispute and if they get confirmed can't fix it? No one has had an answer for that question because there is no answer."

For months, many of the military officers directly impacted by Tuberville's holds declined to speak out, for fear any comments would be seen as political. But as the pressures on their lives and the lives of the officers serving under them increased, they began to speak about how not being able to resettle their families in new communities was impacting not only them, but their military kids and spouses.

They talked about how some of their most talented junior officers were going to get out of the military because of the instability they saw around them, and they talked about how having to perform multiple roles because of so many vacancies was putting enormous additional stress on an already overworked military community. The issue came to a head when U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Eric Smith suffered a heart attack in October, just two days after he'd talked about the stress of the holds at a military conference.

"We can't continue to do this to these good families. Some of these groups that are all for these holds, they haven't thought through the implication of the harm it's doing to real American families," said Sen. Joni Ersnt, R-Iowa.

In response to the holds, Democrats had vowed to take up a resolution that would allow the Senate to confirm groups of military nominees at once during the remainder of the congressional term, but Republicans worried the change could erode the powers of the minority in the Senate.

Tuberville emerged from a closed-door luncheon with his GOP colleagues, saying "all of us are against a rule change in the Senate." He was adamant "we did the right thing for the unborn and for our military" by fighting back against executive overreach. He expressed no regrets but admitted he fell short in his effort.

"The only opportunity you got to get the people on the left up here to listen to you in the minority is to put a hold on something, and that's what we did," Tuberville said. "We didn't get the win that we wanted. We've still got a bad policy."