Editor’s note: Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) says she supports Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) hold on military promotions. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has placed himself at the center of a growing storm touching on abortion, the military and white nationalism, irritating colleagues and turning himself into a more high-profile political target.
The former Auburn University football coach turned first-term Alabama senator has annoyed fellow Republicans with a hold on military promotions, earning rare criticism from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who loathes to publicly criticize a fellow GOP senator.
He then made his troubles worse by criticizing Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a local NPR interview for wanting to get “the white extremists, the white nationalists” out of the military. Pressed on those remarks, Tuberville said he’d call white nationalists “Americans.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pounced on those comments from Tuberville, one of former President Trump’s most vocal advocates in the Senate, labeling them “revolting.”
“Does Sen. Tuberville honestly believe that our military is stronger with white nationalists in its ranks?” Schumer said. “I cannot believe this needs to be said, but white nationalism has no place in our armed forces and no place in any corner of American society, period, full stop, end of story.”
Tuberville’s battle with the military is about the subject of abortion, an issue that has repeatedly helped Democrats in elections and hurt Republicans since the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Tuberville has effectively blocked promotions for roughly 200 senior military officials in key regions over the Pentagon’s abortion policy, which allows service members to take leave and provides travel reimbursements for those who need to travel to get an abortion. That is a more common need since the end of Roe.
Tuberville has said he would lift the holds in exchange for a vote on legislation to change the Pentagon policy, but Democratic senators have been unwilling to give in on that point. Tuberville said he would lift the holds even if his bill did not pass — a likelihood since it would need 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles.
“I find the senator’s approach to the men and women who are seeking advancement in our military to really be painfully wrong,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, when asked whether Democrats would be amenable to voting to end the Pentagon abortion policy.
McConnell has made it clear he opposes Tuberville’s holds.
“No, I don’t support putting a hold on military nominations,” McConnell told reporters last week in response to a question about Tuberville’s blockade. “I don’t support that. But as to why, you’ll have to ask Sen. Tuberville.”
The military promotions in question include those in NATO and in the Indo-Pacific and would usually be passed unanimously all together. Austin argued in a letter last week the hold is also detrimental to military families and imposes “needless additional stress” on them.
At the heart of Tuberville’s arguments on abortion and in the white nationalism remarks is that the military is moving in the wrong direction, specifically on recruiting and readiness.
He is quick to note the Army missed its recruiting goal in 2022 by 25 percent and attributes that to the leftward lurch in recent years and an attempt to freeze out Trump backers.
In seeking to clean up his remarks about white nationalism to the NPR station, Tuberville’s office said he was being skeptical of the notion that white nationalists were in the military, not that they should be in the military.
Later, however, in a separate interview with NPR, Tuberville said he considered someone who was a white nationalist to be a “Trump Republican” and a “MAGA person.”
Though some Republicans have opposed Tuberville’s holds, they are largely brushing off the Democratic criticisms of his remarks about white nationalism.
One Senate Republican told The Hill the one-two punch isn’t creating internal consternation for the GOP conference, adding the remarks last week are viewed as an “isolated event” and downplayed it as “one member acting on his own.”
At the same time, the Senate Republican said Tuberville might want to rethink his strategy.
“If you use holds strategically and you focus on an agency, there’s no reason why he can’t pick and choose,” the Senate Republican said. “I think he’d be wise to just go back and just identify the agency that Austin’s inaction is going to end up having a problem with and just create a problem for that agency versus a [Department of Defense]-wide issue. That’s going to be hard to hold up over time.”
“That really should have been the way he went into it to begin with,” the Senate GOP member added.
Tuberville, despite the controversies, is well-liked by his conference. Commonly referred to around the Capitol as “coach,” Tuberville is seen frequently back-slapping colleagues before and after votes. Many Republicans see him as taking action with the holds that are well within his senatorial powers, regardless of whether they agree with him.
“[Tuberville’s] serious about this. He’s very serious. It’s not just some show that’s going on,” said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a fellow member of the Armed Services Committee who supports his hold though she has previously said it isn't necessarily the tactic she'd use.
His long-standing hold even has support in some corners of GOP leadership. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a McConnell ally, told reporters earlier this week the opposition is warranted.
“One of the biggest problems around here is people aren’t held accountable when they overstep their authority,” Cornyn said, referring to the Pentagon. “I regret that it’s necessary, but I think it is.”
For now, how to end Tuberville’s hold remains very much in question to members of both parties as the senator said earlier this week “nothing” will push him to compromise on the situation, short of the Pentagon reversing its policy.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Hill Tuberville should end his hold and instead seek an amendment vote on the issue via the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
However, Tuberville told reporters earlier this week he doesn’t want to hold the NDAA up with this ongoing push and added he wasn’t interested in a handshake deal with the Biden administration and Democratic leaders on the matter.
“They did that with [Sen. Joe Manchin], and they lied to him,” Tuberville said, pointing to Manchin’s attempt to get permitting reform attached to last year’s NDAA.
The abortion issue is also creating political headaches back home for Tuberville as the Biden administration may nix plans for the U.S. Space Command’s headquarters to move from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Huntsville, Ala. Multiple reports indicate the issue, headlined by the state’s restrictive law that bans nearly abortions, is at the heart of the potential decision.
“It’s not something that’s gone over super well [in the state],” one Alabama GOP source told The Hill, noting that is especially the case in Huntsville, where 10,000 jobs could be impacted.
Other Senate Republicans believe that if Democrats accede to Tuberville’s request for a vote on the Pentagon policy to end the hold, it’s not out of the question that another GOP member could fill his void and announce a blockade of their own.
“I’m not sure there aren’t other Republicans who would be more than happy to step in, particularly from strong pro-life places and say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m putting a hold on all these rascals until they change this policy,’” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said.
As of this week, Tuberville told The Hill he has yet to hear from anyone on the other side of the aisle about reaching a resolution. Instead, Democrats this week launched another effort to advance the horde of military promotions via unanimous request.
“I will come to the floor as many times as possible,” Tuberville said on the floor. “To this point, I hope I’ve been clear. I’ve laid out the conditions for my holds and when I will drop my holds. These conditions have not been met, and I will not drop this hold until they are met.”