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Pentagon chief warns Senate amid abortion-policy showdown

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has put a hold on nearly 160 military promotions, some for very senior positions, citing his objections to its policy post-Roe v. Wade

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testified in the Senate Armed Services Committee against blocking officer promotions on March 28. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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The Pentagon is raising alarm over one Republican senator’s bid to block the promotion of nearly 160 senior U.S. military officers in a dispute arising from the Defense Department’s abortion policy, joining top Democrats in labeling the political showdown a threat to national security.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that by impeding these officers’ promotions, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) had caused a “ripple effect in the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be.”

The remarks were Austin’s most direct in a dispute that has grown increasingly acrimonious since Tuberville, earlier this month, promised he would require the promotions to be approved one-by-one, rather than in batches — what Congress calls unanimous consent. The nominations can still move ahead, but would require time-consuming steps by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who complained Tuesday that Tuberville’s gambit was tantamount to “hostage taking.”

“The women of our military,” Schumer said in remarks on the Senate floor, “are more than capable of making their own decisions when it comes to their health. They do not need the senior senator from Alabama making decisions on their behalf. And they certainly do not need any senator throwing a wrench in the function, the vital functioning of our military when they work every day to keep us safe.”

Tuberville fired back at his critics, saying during Tuesday’s hearing that the Pentagon’s policy, which allows military personnel to recoup associated travel expenses if they are stationed in states that ban or restrict the procedure, approves the use of taxpayer dollars to terminate pregnancies despite a congressional block on such spending via a decades-old law known as the Hyde Amendment.

“You all have the American taxpayer on the hook to pay for travel and time off for elective abortions,” Tuberville said. “And you did not make this [policy] with anybody in this room or Congress taking a vote.”

At the center of the dispute is Austin’s approval of the policy granting up to three weeks of paid time off and travel reimbursement for service members and dependents if they travel out of state to receive an abortion. The move followed last year’s Supreme Court’s ruling ending the constitutional protections granted 50 years ago in Roe v. Wade.

Tuberville told Austin that if the Pentagon wants to spend money on such initiatives, they should be included in the department’s annual defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act.

Austin urged him to reconsider, saying that women comprise nearly 20 percent of the military and they do not get to choose where they are stationed.

“Almost 80,000 of our women are stationed in places … where they don’t have access to non-covered reproductive health care,” Austin said. “I heard from our troops. I heard from our senior leaders. And I heard from our chiefs and our secretaries, and this policy is based on strong legal ground.”

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the issue is so politically fraught, said Tuberville’s hold on promotions has affected five three-star officers who are due to rotate into new jobs within the next 90 days. They include the commander of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, and the Pentagon’s representative on NATO’s military committee.

The official said Austin’s comments were intended to highlight that, unless Tuberville relents, the problem could get significantly worse in the next eight months. Seventy other three- and four-star generals and admirals are scheduled to rotate into new roles this year, including the four-star commanders in charge of U.S. Cyber Command, U.S. Space Command, and U.S. Northern Command, the official said.

The Biden administration also is preparing to replace Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is expected to leave his job by the end of September, along with the top officers in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the committee’s chairman, said that “if we cannot resolve this situation, we will be, in many respects, leaderless at a time of great conflict. “So,” he added, “I would hope we will deal with and expedite and move quickly on this front.”

Other lawmakers split largely along party lines.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) commended Austin, assessing that he had been “heavily criticized” for expanding reproductive health options in the military. “I want you to stay the course,” she said.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said she is “adamantly opposed” to the Pentagon covering travel expenses for U.S. troops to obtain the procedure over state lines. Taxpayer dollars, she said, are now being spent to cover “the extension of an abortion.”

At least one Republican has expressed discomfort with Tuberville’s maneuvering. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), in an interview with Punchbowl News, described the hold on promotions as a “tactic he chose to use” and “not one that I would use.”


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that comments by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) were made during Tuesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. She made the remarks to Punchbowl News. The article has been corrected.