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A temporary Senate rule change could finally end Tuberville's military blockade

A small group of Senators are tying to temporarily change Senate rules to approve military promotions that have been blocked for months by Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville.
AP
A small group of Senators are tying to temporarily change Senate rules to approve military promotions that have been blocked for months by Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville.

If you can't move him, it's time to find a way around him.

That seems to be the thinking among many senators when it comes to Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.

Tuberville is nine months into his one-man blockade of hundreds of military promotions — in protest of an unrelated Pentagon policy that allows service members to get assistance to seek abortion care. He's blocked more than 370 appointments so far. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say he's leaving the military in a desperate position.

"Enough is enough," Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told NPR this week. "Sen. Tuberville has not listened to those that are running our military and he's not listened to his own Republican colleagues."

That includes Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who says he takes this personally as a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. Sullivan told Fox News this week that Tuberville isn't just undermining military readiness but also morale.

"If we start driving our best flag officers out of the military, this is gonna be viewed as a national security suicide mission," he said.

When it comes to rule changing, there's generally resistance in the Senate. But Klobuchar says the pressure from Republicans on Tuberville to stop his protest makes her confident the committee can pass a new temporary resolution, which is scheduled for a vote next week.

Senate rules allow Tuberville to hold up nominations all by himself. But a small group of senators has introduced a measure that would allow most military promotions to be approved as a group (or "en bloc") with a simple majority vote.

The measure would need to be approved by the Rules Committee before coming up for a vote in the full Senate, where it would need 60 votes to pass.

Klobuchar says Tuberville has blocked so many positions — more than 370 — the Senate doesn't have time to start from the beginning, even if someone got him to back down. There's a spending bill deadline to consider.

"If we voted on them individually, we would literally be going through the year and the government would shut down," she says.

Also driving this urgency is the strain on the military itself — best exemplified by the recent hospitalization of Marine Corps commandant Gen. Eric Smith, who suffered an apparent heart attack after working overtime amid the nomination blockade.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports that Smith noted the strain of his job just a few weeks before his heart attack:

Unmoved, Tuberville told CNN this week that the short-staffed military needs to "delegate," the way he did as a college football coach.

"I coached for a long time," Tuberville said. "I think 15 or 20 coaches, I mean, you can only do so much. You got to give responsibility. I'm sure that's what they're doing."

He continued his comparison while shifting the blame to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, saying it was his job to "get people ready."

"I mean, people are still in the game. They might not be making a call somewhere, but they might after I give him a promotion, but all jobs are filled. I mean, it's you can't tell me that our military is not functioning the way it should function at a high readiness, especially with what's going on now."

When asked for comment on that, Klobuchar addressed Tuberville directly.

"This isn't a game, Sen. Tuberville," she said. "It's not a football game. It's real life. Right now, you have the head of the Marines who had a heart attack and is in the hospital after trying to do two jobs. You've got the head of Cybercom held up while that is clearly one of Vladimir Putin's weapons, using the internet, using cyber against our country and others. You've got the head of the Air Command in the Pacific held up. It's just one thing after another."

The Rules Committee vote will be held on Tuesday afternoon and would move to the Senate floor after.

Klobuchar says once the Tuberville issue is handled, she'd love to see a permanent rule change in the next Congress — making sure no one person has the power to do something like this again.

"People have had it," she says. "And we are ready to go on Tuesday afternoon. I really look forward to it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.