Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) move to block more than 160 promotions for military officers and commanders over the Pentagon’s decision to provide service members with expanded access to abortion is dividing Republicans and drawing the ire of Defense Department officials.

At issue for Tuberville is the Pentagon’s recently enacted policy that covers expenses and grants leave to troops who have to travel to obtain abortions. Detractors argue the Alabama Republican’s holds could have adverse effects on military readiness at a time of escalating tensions with China, Russia and Iran.

And while many Senate Republicans are sympathetic to his opposition to the Pentagon’s abortion policy, several are questioning whether this is the right way to go about fighting it.

“I think Tommy’s on to an important subject. How you end up being able to really make progress on that is challenging,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told The Hill. “So now, you get into a scenario where you can’t do that in perpetuity because it’s at the expense of people who probably share his view on the subject who get caught up in it.” 

“I think Tommy’s right to draw attention to it, but now we have to look at a path that would produce a positive outcome, and I’m not sure we have one yet,” Tillis added. 

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.)

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) arrives to the Senate Chamber for a vote regarding a nomination on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Greg Nash)

The issue has been percolating for months as Tuberville has continued beating the drum against the Defense Department’s directive, which was handed down in October. 

However, the battle between Tuberville and the Pentagon burst open on Tuesday when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tore into the rising backlog of promotions during an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). 

The Pentagon chief, while not naming the Alabama senator directly, argued the holds impact national security readiness and said the promotions are “absolutely critical.”  

“There are a number of things happening globally that indicate that we could be in a contest on any one given day,” Austin said. “Not approving the recommendations for promotions actually creates a ripple effect through the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be.”

Military promotions are usually done expeditiously and rarely require floor time. The pending military assignments include multiple senior positions in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East and NATO, and notably feature the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Austin also warned the pileup could “multiply” and affect the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. 

“The effects are cumulative, and it will affect families,” Austin continued. “It’s a powerful effect and will impact on our readiness.”

Following the hearing, Tuberville told The Hill that he is fighting in the name of opposing taxpayer-funded abortions. He said it’s “hypocritical as all get-out” that most Senate Republicans have voted to uphold the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, while not battling the Pentagon’s abortion policy. 

“I’m standing up for the taxpayers,” Tuberville said in a brief interview. “I know a lot of people, they don’t want their money going toward it. … We’ve had an abortion policy for years and years, and they just blanket said we’re going to change it and we’re going to even include the dependents of the soldier. The taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for that.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin answers a question during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, March 28, 2023 to discuss the President’s FY 2024 budget for the Department of Defense and Future Years Defense Program. (Greg Nash)

What it would take for the two sides to reach a detente is unclear. 

Tuberville said he is in the middle of talks with Pentagon officials, but he did not indicate that anything will be wrapped up before the Senate leaves for a two-week recess on Thursday.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she disagrees with her Senate GOP colleague’s push but doesn’t see a resolution coming together right away.

“Sen. Tuberville’s pretty firm on this,” Fischer said. “But I hope conversations are still going to take place.”

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member on the panel, declined to weigh in on whether there’s a path forward for a deal.

“The less said, the better,” he said.

However, Tuberville also has the support of several GOP lawmakers, who contend that tactics like placing holds on promotions are some of the only ways a senator can exert influence over an issue this acutely. 

“I think he’s right in his concern for what the department is doing because we have never agreed to fund abortions in the past, and on this particular case, it’s a pretty fine line when you’re funding to get them someplace to get an abortion,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), a fellow SASC member.

“I think it’s a worthwhile fight on his part,” Rounds added.