Sen. Tommy Tuberville Faces Down His Own Party Over His Military Holds
It’s now been nine months since Sen. Tommy Tuberville started placing “holds” on military promotions in the Senate in supposed protest over the military’s policy of allowing leave and reimbursing travel for servicemembers seeking abortions. The holds have caused chaos and a collapse in morale in the military, and there is now talk of mass departures from within the ranks. On Wednesday, some in Tuberville’s own party began signaling that they have finally had enough.
In a rare display of anger, five GOP senators blasted Tuberville for continuing to freeze promotions. They even brought many nominations to the floor, one by one, daring him to object—which he did, again.
“This is doing great damage to our military,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who in stopped-clock fashion is sometimes absolutely correct. Graham argued that the proper recourse to challenge the legality of the Pentagon policy is through the courts and warned of the precedent once the shoe is on the other foot and a Republican is back in the White House.
Senator Jodi Ernst (R-IA) laid into Tuberville for reneging on their agreement that he would allow votes on individual nominations. “I really respect men of their word,” she said. “I do not respect men who do not honor their word.”
Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) charged that Tuberville, who has never served a day in the military, isn’t qualified to speak on military readiness. “Oh, ‘no readiness problem.’ That’s such baloney. Baloney. And everybody knows it. You spend one day in the military, you know it. Really makes me frustrated.”
But Tuberville was unmoved. He shot down 61 separate requests, raised by GOP senators, to allow nominees to move forward. “I will keep my hold in place until the Pentagon follows the law or the Democrats change the law,” he declared.
As this matter comes to a boiling point, the public has questions.
Why is Tuberville doing this?
How can one man hold up hundreds of military positions?
Why haven’t the Democrats been able to stop him?
And will Republicans now help Democrats get around Tuberville’s blockade?
Let’s look briefly at each of these.
Why is Tuberville doing this?
The purported reason Tuberville is blocking all military promotions is to protest the Pentagon’s policy on abortion-related travel and cost reimbursement. Tuberville claims that the policy is illegal, and he is demanding it be rescinded, or he won’t relent on his holds.
There may be other reasons, however. Tuberville is new to the Senate, and one way for him to stay in the headlines and to gain the support of the most extreme factions on the right is to warp the rules of the Senate to sabotage the state and make a bold statement. This brings him adulation from extremists, who see the paralysis and shutting down of the federal government as a good thing. It also permits Tuberville to fundraise off of his moves like others on the far right such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Q-GA) and Matt Gaetz (F-FL). (The “F” is for fascist, because let’s face it, he is one.)
It’s important to recognize that Tuberville’s true motives may be to troll and be as nasty a saboteur as possible. That means reasoning with him is pointless, and backing him up against a wall only strengthens his case to extremists, who see him as a hero. Not even the heart attack suffered by Gen. Eric Smith of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brought on, some have charged, by the fatigue from having to perform multiple jobs while the promotions are on hold, was enough to move Tuberville off his overall position.
There’s no doubt also that Tuberville has gained the attention of the Russian and Chinese, who are delighting in the dysfunction he has caused and are busy amplifying his messaging. “[T]he Chinese are like— they’re watching it, I guarantee it, hello, guys—and they’re like, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe how dumb these guys are,’” Sullivan remarked during the heated session.
Because Tuberville won’t relent for any reason, his holds must be circumvented by way of parliamentary maneuver. But that isn’t as easy as it might sound.
How can one man have so much power?
The ability for one senator to object to a nomination and effectively kill it is a vestige from a time when such power was almost never used. That’s because senators by tradition have worked through consensus and courtesy—two things now clearly out the window. As Aaron Blake of the Washington Post explained,
Basically, a hold means they privately signal they’ll object to unanimously approving a nomination. It significantly delays votes that are usually dealt with quickly. Senators don’t want to spend countless hours on the floor fighting to overcome these procedural hurdles, especially with hundreds of military promotions in play as they are right now, so they try to work out the issues privately.
Tuberville has figured out that he can hold up nominations by throwing up a hold and forcing what should be a non-controversial nomination into a full-blown issue. As his holds grew in number, it became clear that for the Senate to deal with them one by one, with whole half days spent on each, was now wholly impractical. Think of it like a log jam, where Tuberville is blocking the only way out by only allowing one log through the opening at a time, and very slowly at that.
Why haven’t Democrats been able to stop him?
Tuberville also knows that it’s much easier for him to win the information war than for the Democrats. After all, it should seem easy for Democrats, who hold the majority, to stop just one senator in the minority party from wrecking the country, right?
Democratic voters often rail angrily about this paralysis, and their frustration is understandable. Just vote them through already! Stay the weekend, do what it takes! But these objections fail to understand the limitations and requirements of the Senate procedural rules. So here’s a quick primer.
It’s true that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) could call votes one by one as a way to break up the log jam. But both parties recognize that this is unworkable.
For starters, it would take months of the Senate time to work through all the backlogged nominations, of which there are now hundreds. Such a process would prevent the Democrats from doing nearly any other work (such as the budget, other legislation, and judicial nominations) and they still wouldn’t get through most of these nominations in the remaining months of the term.
More broadly, such a “solution” would hand control of the floor over to a minority of the minority, which would have succeeded in hijacking the entire agenda of the majority by sabotaging the whole body. We recently saw the catastrophe that results from this recently over in the House.
Even Minority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t believe Schumer should concede the floor to Tuberville. He’s thinking about a day when the Republicans hold the majority, and he doesn’t want this precedent at all.
Again, Lindsay Graham in one of his rare, accurate moments, put it well:
Everybody in this body could find an issue with any administration they don’t agree with. And what we’re gonna do is open up Pandora’s Box. Today is abortion policy…If we retake the White House, what would happen if [pro choice people] put a hold on all the officers because they don’t agree with the Republican administration? There’s a reason this has not been done this way for a couple hundred years….There’s not one Senator in here who could not find a reason to object to an administration policy.
The only way around this logjam, under the current Senate rules, is to carve an exception to the rules. For complicated reasons, this would be a change that would require 60 votes by the Senate—not just a majority—in order to overcome the expected filibuster.
That’s because it would technically be an amendment to a standing rule, which means it’s subject to the normal filibuster rules. The Senate could also vote to set aside a provision of its Standing Rules, but that is also subject to the cloture (meaning “end of debate”) requirements, so it would also take 60 votes.
That means that no matter how you slice it, all Democrats plus the independents would need to back an amendment or a rule waiver in this case, and at least nine GOP senators would need to come on board.
The GOP isn’t on board…yet
Despite their obvious anger and frustration at their own burn-it-down colleague, none of the five GOP senators who spoke against Tuberville on Wednesday evening has gone on record in support of a rule change, even one that temporarily moves these stuck nominations through. That’s because there is great hesitancy over changing or waiving the rules, even in response to changed circumstances. Republicans don’t really want to weaken the power of a single senator to hold up the government like this.
"I think it would be an extraordinary mistake to change the rules on holds, and that I would remind my Democratic colleagues that's a double-edged sword," Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) warned.
Other GOP senators are on record against a change to rules. Senators John Barrasso (R-WY), John Cornyn (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) all would also reject any effort to get around the rule on nominee confirmations.
"I'm pretty reluctant to change the rules," Hawley said. "If we're going to change the rules, if we are going to depart from the tradition that we leave the rules as they are, then I have a whole bunch of rules I'd like to see changed so if we're going to do that, I'll have my own thoughts about what other rules we'd like to change."
Schumer intends to bring the rule change vote to floor anyway, however, to show that Democrats are doing everything reasonable they can to unblock the jam, while Republicans are actually helping Tuberville maintain his blockade. Whether enough GOP senators put their money where the madness lies remains to be seen.