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Tuberville's hold on military promotions may put 650 officers in limbo by year's end

The Pentagon is seen in this aerial view in Washington, Jan. 26, 2020.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
The Pentagon is seen in this aerial view in Washington, Jan. 26, 2020.

The Pentagon says there are 301 generals and admirals whose nominations have been placed in limbo because of an indefinite "hold" by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a Republican from Alabama, who wants the military to change its policy of reimbursing service members for travel to get reproductive care, including abortions.

By the end of the year, the Pentagon says that number could swell to 650 generals and admirals who need Senate confirmation before they can assume their jobs. Any single senator can put a hold on nominations under Senate rules.

"The Department has 83 three- and four-star nominations pending for positions already vacated or due to rotate within the next 150 days," the Pentagon said in response to questions by reporters. "Because of this blanket hold, for the first time in the history of the Department, three of our military services are operating without Senate-confirmed leaders. This is unprecedented, unnecessary and unsafe."

The Navy, Army and Marine Corps are without top leaders because of the hold. And by the end of September, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will retire by law. He cannot be extended. The officer nominated to replace him, Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown, is also awaiting approval by the Senate.

The Pentagon gave this further breakdown.

"Sixty-one of those officers are unable to assume their new positions. More than 40 officers who have been selected to the grade of one or two stars will assume the duties of the higher grade while remaining in their current grade until they are confirmed. Generals and admirals are not authorized to have their date-of-rank backdated, so each of these officers will not receive a pay increase while they are performing the duties in a higher grade."

"In addition, 25 officers have had their retirements deferred until the holds have been lifted or Dec. 31, 2023, whichever occurs first," the Pentagon said.

"Now, they have been turned into political pawns"

Tuberville has argued that the Pentagon is violating the law by reimbursing service members who travel to states whose laws are more lenient for abortion care. Those reimbursements came as a result of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, which for a half century made abortions legal. Now each state can come up with its own abortion policy.

The Pentagon says a "small number" of service members are getting reimbursed for trips to get reproductive care, which includes travel for in vitro fertilization, but have yet to come up with any details.

A federal law from the 1980s prohibits the federal government from paying for abortions. Military and civilian officials argue that the payments are solely for transportation, not care, but Tuberville has stood firm. He says he won't change his mind until Democrats allow a vote on the policy.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has made three calls to Tuberville, urging him to abandon the holds. One defense official tells NPR the conversations are short, with Tuberville asking if the Pentagon will abandon its policy. And members of the Senate have lashed out at Tuberville.

"The senator from Alabama has chosen a profoundly insulting and damaging path to make his unhappiness known," said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. "The Senate has always treated military nominations with respect and bipartisan support as part of a routine promotion process. Now, they have been turned into political pawns by the senator from Alabama."

Moreover, military spouses are also urging Tuberville to end his hold. Tonya Murphy, whose husband is a Navy commander, delivered a petition to senators signed by 500 spouses. The senator says he has a letter signed by 5,000 veterans supporting his position.

"I warned the Pentagon that I would hold their most senior nominees if they broke the law," Tuberville said in a statement, first reported this week by Breitbart News. "They did it anyway, and forced my hand. Since then, [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer and the Biden administration have refused any serious negotiations, and so this situation has dragged on. I will continue this process of oversight and I will announce my opposition to specific nominees in the weeks ahead."

The hope among officials is that Tuberville will at least allow some nominations to go forward for a vote when the Senate returns in September – specifically for the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who serves as the top military adviser to the president.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.