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Tommy Tuberville’s Military Holdups Picking Up GOP Detractors
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Tommy Tuberville’s Military Holdups Picking Up GOP Detractors

And why don’t senators ever try to sneak unanimous consent requests through the chamber?

Hello and good afternoon! We’re trying out a new format today to match some of our other newsletters. Let us know what you think.

The Congressional Record

  • The House voted 226-196 on Thursday to pass a $14.3 billion Israel aid package, with 12 Democrats joining most Republicans in supporting it. Two Republicans opposed the legislation. As we wrote to you on Tuesday, the bill doesn’t have a chance of passing the Democratic-held Senate because it offsets the new spending with cuts to Internal Revenue Service funding and includes no money for Ukraine, which Democrats and GOP defense hawks want to pass alongside Israel funding.
  • Sen. John Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat, proposed a resolution to punish senators who are indicted for compromising national security, mishandling classified information, or acting as a foreign agent. If passed—the odds of which are unclear—those senators would lose committee assignments and be barred from joining classified briefings, among other consequences. Although it doesn’t mention Sen. Bob Menendez by name, the move is clearly in response to the New Jersey Democrat’s bribery indictment late last month. Fetterman has previously called on Menendez to step down.
  • Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee clashed this week over approving subpoenas in their investigation into Supreme Court ethics. Republicans called the move an unfair attempt to attack conservative Supreme Court justices, while Democrats said subpoenas are needed to unearth new information in their probe. The committee may vote on the matter as soon as next week.
  • House members rejected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s resolution to censure progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib for her stance on Israel and Palestine this week. Greene accused Tlaib of antisemitism and “sympathizing with terrorist organizations.” The chamber also voted down an attempt to expel GOP Rep. George Santos, who was indicted last month for wire fraud, credit card fraud, and identity theft, among other charges.
  • Democratic lawmakers are increasingly calling for Israel to shift its military strategy or take a humanitarian pause in its counteroffensive in the Gaza Strip. In separate statements on Thursday, Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Brian Schatz reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself, but cited a mounting civilian death toll and untenable conditions for people in Gaza unable to escape. “The way in which the current campaign is being waged—most recently evidenced by the terribly high human cost of the strikes on the Jabalya refugee camp—suggests that they have not struck the right balance between military necessity and proportionality,” Murphy wrote
  • House Appropriations Committee Chair Kay Granger said this week she will not seek reelection. Granger, a Texas Republican, has served in the House for nearly three decades. Her decision comes after she opposed conservative Rep. Jim Jordan’s bid for the speakership last month. Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, another Republican, also announced his retirement this week, citing rampant election denial within the GOP conference.
  • House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said Friday he is open to pairing border security measures with future Ukraine aid. Republicans have increasingly coalesced around the idea of coupling those two issues in legislation, rather than tying Ukraine to an even broader bill including Israel aid.

Tommy Tuberville Is Not Backing Down

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, speaks to reporters as he leaves the Senate floor after a vote in the Capitol on Tuesday, September 19, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, speaks to reporters as he leaves the Senate floor after a vote in the Capitol on Tuesday, September 19, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

World War III may be brewing in the Middle East. A conflict over Taiwan could break out with China any day. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continues to threaten the stability of the Korean Peninsula. And, Sen. Tuberville, did you know this U.S. military officer went to Auburn?

Not even that old college try could move Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, former head football coach at Auburn University, off his nine-month blockade of military promotions. Some of his fellow Republicans—Sens. Joni Ernst, Dan Sullivan, Mitt Romney, Todd Young, and Lindsey Graham—spent nearly five hours on the Senate floor Wednesday night attempting to circumvent Tuberville’s hold. But the Alabama Republican would not relent, even as his colleagues described 61 officers’ impressive résumés, decades in the service, and the importance of their new appointments. Sullivan and Ernst at times grew visibly angry with Tuberville during the debate, demanding that he explain himself.

“We’re going to look back at this episode,” Sullivan said on the Senate floor, “and just be stunned at what a national security suicide mission this became.”

As we wrote to you in this newsletter—and highlighted in a recent explainer—Tuberville has been holding up military promotions in an attempt to force the Biden administration to change its approach to abortion in the military. The Senate often uses voice votes to approve uncontroversial measures or nominations, and members frequently rely on “unanimous consent” requests to circumvent the chamber’s drawn out processes. But any one senator can block unanimous consent requests, as Tuberville has. Concerned with abortion access for troops in states that have adopted stricter rules since the end of Roe v. Wade, the Defense Department moved earlier this year to give paid time off to service members who travel for abortion services—and reimburse their travel costs. Many Republicans see the policy as a violation of the Hyde Amendment, a longstanding ban on federal funding of abortions.

It’s not clear how many service members have used the abortion travel policy, although Republican Sen. Roger Wicker said in a letter in September that he’s heard that number may be roughly 12. Wicker argued if that figure is accurate, service members would not be greatly affected by rolling back the policy.

Tuberville hopes his pressure campaign will force the Defense Department to reverse course, and many of his Republican detractors agree with that end goal. Ernst, an Iowa Republican, said she also wants to see the abortion travel policy changed or struck down, but she thinks anti-abortion groups should challenge the Pentagon’s policy in court. “We feel it’s illegal,” she said. “They feel it’s illegal. Then do something about it.”

According to his GOP critics, Tuberville’s tactics target the wrong people, with officers awaiting confirmation growing frustrated and disillusioned as they watch politics interfere with military readiness. Tuberville should block a Biden administration political appointee, Sullivan argued, not service members who have no say in policy.

Ernst is hoping to find a procedural path out of the quagmire, but senators plan to push a rule change to make it easier to get around Tuberville’s hold as soon as next week. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he is setting up consideration of a plan from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed that would combine many of the nominations into one vote.

“Patience is wearing thin with Sen. Tuberville on both sides of the aisle,” Schumer said in a floor speech Wednesday, pointing to a health emergency that Marine Commandant Gen. Eric Smith—whose own appointment stalled for months during Tuberville’s blockade—suffered over the weekend. His reported heart attack and hospitalization, Schumer suggested, may have been tied to the strain of his workload while waiting on the Senate to confirm his assistant: It “just showed many people how dangerous what Tuberville is doing is,” Schumer said. The Senate approved a nominee this week to assist Smith.

But tackling each military promotion individually—with each requiring multiple floor votes and days of processing time—isn’t an efficient option for the chamber. Over the summer, the Congressional Research Service estimated it would take 89 days of eight-hour Senate sessions to individually approve the more than 300 nominations Tuberville has blocked since the start of the year. 

To change the rules and consider hundreds of nominees at once, Democrats would need to hit the filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold. In practical terms, that means keeping their caucus unified and picking up nine Republican votes. But it’s not clear if that’ll be feasible. Several leading Republicans who spoke with The Dispatch on Thursday sounded firmly opposed to the idea. Sen. Chuck Grassley said he would oppose a rules change, because he fears a “slippery slope” to institutional chaos. The Senate GOP conference is set to discuss the matter at a lunch meeting next week.

But at least a couple of Republican senators appear open to it. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, for example, expressed concern that Tuberville’s tactics could theoretically be deployed by a Democratic senator to seek expanded abortion access under a future Republican administration. “If this becomes the norm, that we hold up our military promotions, we basically break down our military and exact a huge cost on the men and women who protect us,” Romney told reporters. “This is the wrong vehicle to be using to change policy.”

Tuberville’s tactics are part of a larger shift toward spectacle and grievance politics, Romney argued.

“As an institution, we’ve lived by a series of values and procedures that have allowed us to operate in good faith,” he added. “And the new politics suggests that if you want to get seen, you break the norms. You break the rules, you break the precedent in such a way that people are alarmed and are drawn to your fight. It makes money, and it gives you a lot of political power. It just happens to break down the functioning of the Senate.”

Are the rules—such as not being able to address these military promotions efficiently without Tuberville’s consent—unsustainable? “I won’t go that far, but it’s under strain,” Romney, who nonetheless remains optimistic about a breakthrough, told The Dispatch.

Tuberville’s Republican critics may face backlash, however, if they join Democrats in rewriting Senate rules. In an email obtained by Politico’s Burgess Everett, Tuberville’s communications director called for conservative groups to make it clear that those who support the resolution will be primaried by conservative challengers. “They only need nine squishes,” he said. “And they will get there if we don’t act.” The aide said later that the email was intended for a few close friends and didn’t represent Tuberville’s views, and Sen. Steve Daines, who helms the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, has reportedly suggested the staffer should face repercussions for the comment.

The episode highlights how inscrutable the Senate can be as an institution. Watching Republican senators list nominees one-by-one and Tuberville rise each time to object to them, C-SPAN viewers might have wondered: Why don’t senators sneak a unanimous consent request onto the floor without alerting their colleagues first?

Today, senators file their requests in advance in order to alert staff, so senators who oppose a given measure can be there on time to block it. While it makes sense for governing, this principle of collegiality can take senators to absurd places: In 2018, former Sen. Richard Burr made a request on the floor to advance one of his priorities. When he saw that the colleague he thought would be there to block his request hadn’t shown up, he then reluctantly objected to his own request in the spirit of courtesy. 

Any attempt to sneak a request through the chamber might also spark fierce debate, if history is any guide. In 1913, the chamber spent two days debating the validity of a measure that passed by unanimous consent because the senator who opposed it—although being present in the chamber at the time—was momentarily distracted and didn’t object to it soon enough. 

There’s been one recent mishap along these lines: Sen. Marco Rubio’s daylight saving time legislation passed the Senate via unanimous consent last year—taking its ardent opponents and even some of its supporters by total surprise—because of a staffing mistake. The bill never passed the House.

While Senate Democrats are ready to change the rules, they aren’t ready to embrace that kind of scorched-earth approach. Informing opponents of upcoming floor requests keeps courtesy in the chamber, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said. “If you started doing that, then everybody would do it,” he told The Dispatch. “It’s one of the ways we keep collegiality and we don’t become the House of Representatives.”

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.