In a single stroke on Tuesday, the Senate approved about 425 military promotions after U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville ended a monthslong blockade of nominations over his opposition to a Pentagon abortion policy.
Tuberville, who represents the U.S. state of Alabama, had been under pressure from members of both sides of the political aisle to end his holds as senators complained about the toll it was taking on service members and their families, and on military readiness.
U.S. President Joe Biden called the Senate's action long overdue and said the military confirmations should never have been held up.
"In the end, this was all pointless. Senator Tuberville, and the Republicans who stood with him, needlessly hurt hundreds of service members and military families and threatened our national security — all to push a partisan agenda. I hope no one forgets what he did," Biden said in a statement released by the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer teed up the military confirmations for a vote just a few hours after Tuberville emerged from a closed-door lunch with fellow GOP senators and told reporters he's "not going to hold the promotions of these people any longer." He said holds would continue, however, for about 11 of the highest-ranking military officers, those who would be promoted to what he described as the four-star level or above.
There were 451 military officers affected by the holds as of November 27. That had left key national security positions unfilled and military families with an uncertain path forward.
Tuberville was blocking the nominations in opposition to Pentagon rules that allow travel reimbursement when a service member has to go out of state to get an abortion or other reproductive care. The Biden administration instituted the new rules after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to an abortion, and some states have limited or banned the procedure.
"Well, certainly we're encouraged by the news," Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder said at a briefing Tuesday. "We continue to stay engaged with Senator Tuberville in the Senate directly, to urge that all holds on all our general flag officer nominations be lifted."
Critics said that Tuberville's tactics were a mistake because he was blocking the promotions of people who had nothing to do with the policy he opposed.
"Why are we punishing American heroes who have nothing to with the dispute?" asked Senator Dan Sullivan, who represents Alaska. "Remember, we are against the Biden abortion travel policy. But why are we punishing people who have nothing to do with the dispute and if they get confirmed can't fix it? No one has had an answer for that question because there is no answer."
The issue came to a head when U.S. Marine Corps Commandant General Eric Smith suffered a heart attack in October, just two days after he'd talked about the stress of the holds at a military conference.
"We can't continue to do this to these good families. Some of these groups that are all for these holds, they haven't thought through the implication of the harm it's doing to real American families," said Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican who represents Iowa.
In the end, Schumer said Tuberville ended up failing to get anything he wanted and held it out as a warning to others who might attempt similar efforts in the future to undo policies they oppose.