Austin warns US military at risk by senate block over abortions

Tony Capaccio and Roxana Tiron
Bloomberg News (TNS)

The U.S. military faces “unnecessary and unprecedented” risk from a Republican senator’s block on officer promotions aimed at protesting the Pentagon’s abortion policy, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

Austin detailed the perils of a leadership void in a May 5 letter to Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, who requested an accounting of the impact on national security from the hold placed by Alabama Republican Tommy Tuberville on all general and flag officer nominations.

Tuberville placed the hold Feb. 16 over a policy that allows military personnel seeking an abortion to take leave and receive travel allowances. If the Senate doesn’t resolve the impasse, the hold could ultimately complicate the confirmation in a few months of the the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest U.S. military position.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) speaks at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol Building on April 27, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/TNS)

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“The longer that this hold persists, the greater the risk the US military runs in every theater, every domain, and every service,” Austin wrote in the letter, released Wednesday by Warren’s office.

Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade abortion protections by the Supreme Court, the deadlock over military leader appointments highlights how deeply the political discord over the issue has crept into the procedural gears of Washington.

Tuberville’s hold also threatens to block the expected appointment of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That would mean the top civilian and uniformed Pentagon leadership posts would be held by African Americans, coming 75 years after President Harry Truman ordered to desegregate the military.

Tuberville, a member of the Armed Services Committee, told Austin in a March 22 phone call that he would keep his hold on Pentagon nominees unless the defense chief rescinds or suspends the policy “facilitating taxpayer-funded abortions for the military and their family members.”

While a hold doesn’t prevent confirmation, it would require several days of procedural steps to end debate. Senate leaders often honor hold requests because not doing so risks a range of parliamentary responses, such as a filibuster, which could expend significant amounts of scarce floor time, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The Pentagon has 64 three-and four-star nominations for positions scheduled to rotate within the next four months, including the Army Chief of Staff, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Commandant and Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, the Director of the National Security Agency and the head of the US Cyber Command, according to Austin.

The Defense Department projects that about 650 general and flag officers will require Senate confirmation by the end of the year.