Alabama football coach turned Republican US Senator Tommy Tuberville has single-handedly blocked the promotion of hundreds of American military officials since March to protest Pentagon policy to reimburse service members’ travel expenses for abortion care.
His blockade has left three branches of the military without confirmed leaders, a position that senior military officials warn could expose the US to national security threats and put American service members in the middle of a politically caustic anti-abortion crusade.
In recent days, secretaries of the US Army, Navy and Air Force have accused Mr Tuberville’s action of “actively” eroding “the foundation of America’s enduring military advantage” with a misguided protest.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said Mr Tuberville is effectively “aiding and abetting communist and other autocratic regimes,” while Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall condemned the “unprecedented” blockade.
“Senator Tuberville has no experience in the military,” Mr Kendall told CNN on 9 September. “It’s his first time in public service and I don’t think he appreciates how much of an impact this is having and how negative an impact it is for the military.”
In an interview with CNN, Mr Del Toro accused the senator of “playing Russian roulette with the very lives of our servicemembers by denying them the opportunity to actually have the most experienced combat leaders in those positions to lead them in times of peace and in times of combat.”
Republican House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Michael McCaul told CNN on 10 September that Mr Tuberville’s actions are “paralyzing” the US Department of Defense.
He called the senator’s holds a “national security problem” and urged him to back off, adding that the Pentagon’s abortion policy has been “worked out” in a version of the National Defense Authorization Act passed by the Republican-controlled chamber of Congress
The annual defence policy package passed by GOP lawmakers would revoke the policy, but a version passed by the Democratic-majority Senate did not include Republicans’ anti-abortion language.
“We’re going to conference in the Senate, we’re going to work out this abortion issue that has been a tradition within the NDAA,” Mr McCaul said.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley – who would end the reimbursement policy, if elected – said military families should not be used as “pawns” in the anti-abortion debate.
“I’m not saying that Senator Tuberville is right in doing this, because I don’t want to use them as pawns,” the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador told CNN on Sunday. “But if you love our military and are so adamant about it, then go and make Congress, Republicans and Democrats, have to go through person by person.”
In 2021, women made up more than 17 per cent of active-duty military, totaling more than 231,000 members, and roughly 21 per cent of the National Guard and reserves, 171,000 members, according to the Pentagon. Since 2017, the percentages of women in the active-duty and selected reserve have risen 1.1 percent and 1.8 per cent, respectively.
The Pentagon’s abortion policy followed the US Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to revoke a constitutional right to abortion access, triggering a wave of state-level laws banning abortion and imposing criminal penalties for care. Pregnant service members stationed in states that have outlawed abortion would have to travel to other states where care is legally protected; the Defense Department has offered to reimburse service members for that travel and provide up to 21 days of leave for abortions and fertility treatment.
Mr Tuberville’s protest effectively prevents a unanimous voice vote in the Senate to confirm hundreds of military nominations and promotions, putting the lives of service members and their families on hold while waiting for what has been an otherwise routine approval process.
“These military leaders are being forced to endure costly separations from their families – a painful experience they have come to know from nearly 20 years of deployments to places such as Iraq and Afghanistan,” military secretaries wrote in The Washington Post this week.
“All because of the actions of a single senator,” they added.
A recent petition from spouses for active-duty service members that was delivered to Senate leadership said the families are “deeply concerned and personally impacted by Senator Tuberville blocking confirmation of senior military leaders.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has also repeatedly called the senator, most recently in July, but Mr Tuberville has brushed off concerns and rejected the idea that his blockade has any negative impacts.
This week, the senator said Navy secretary Del Toro “needs to get back to building ships” and “recruiting” and to get “wokeness” out of the military.
“We’ve got people doing poems on aircraft carriers over the loudspeaker,” he told Fox News. “It is absolutely insane the direction that we’re headed in our military, and we’re headed downhill, not uphill.”
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