A prominent Republican senator is threatening to suspend all appointments to the Department of Defense over the decision by top leaders to provide leave and travel expenses to help troops access abortion services.
The move comes as senior Pentagon officials raise concerns about several unfilled leadership positions, including Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, a key position in recruitment efforts and retention, and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, a key position to oversee stockpiles of weapons sent to Ukraine.
In a letter Monday to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the move was intended to force military leaders to give reasons for the decision, which, according to him, seems politically motivated. A briefing on the issue was scheduled for last month but cancelled.
“This unprofessional behavior does not reflect well on your office or the Department of Defense,” Tuberville wrote. “Unfortunately, I’ve come to expect this kind of delay and obfuscation from the Pentagon.”
A staffer in Tuberville’s office said the senator would lift his grip after the briefing and any questions about the policy would have been adequately answered.
At least nine senior Defense Department candidates are awaiting a full House vote for confirmation, including Lester Martinez-Lopez, President Joe Biden’s pick to be Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, and Radha Iyengar Plumb, the candidate for the acquisition and maintenance position.
Separately, the nominations of Nickolas Guertin as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Ronald Keohane as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs are pending before the Armed Services Committee.
The Pentagon’s legislative affairs team has been pushing for nominations to continue at least since lawmakers returned to Washington after the midterm elections.
Early last month, deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters that Congress was behind the pace at which it was confirming Pentagon nominees under the Trump administration and that this was hampering national security.
“We’re a bit paralyzed here, and so we urge the Senate to confirm these nominees because they play a critical role in managing recruiting, our budget and the physical health of the force,” Singh said. “We believe these candidates are quite capable and have bipartisan support. I mean, they were rejected by the [armed services] Committee.”
Tuberville’s sway amounts to another headache for Pentagon leaders hoping to fill leadership vacancies. They have already faced delays and frustration over confirmation votes due to other blockages, including multiple blockades by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who demanded the resignation and firing of senior administration officials due to mistakes made during the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
Hawley said he would not budge on the nominees until the Senate Armed Services Committee schedules a hearing on Afghanistan, a decision likely to take place in the Republican-controlled House next year. but not in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
On Tuesday, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla, said he would also hold back on all defense candidates on the issue of mandatory military vaccinations.
The Biden administration’s handling of abortion access issues in recent months has infuriated Republican lawmakers and led to threats of funding government agencies or blocking operations until the measures are repealed. .
In October, Austin released a memo saying senior leaders should “ensure our service members and their families can access reproductive health care,” no matter where they are.
Concerns about troops’ access to abortion services have grown since the Supreme Court in June overturned the Roe v. Wade of 1973 which legalized abortion nationwide. Since then, more than two dozen states have moved to ban or limit the procedure, with many of those cases now the subject of legal battles.
The Austin memo allows pregnant service members to take leave to travel out of state for an abortion if they cannot legally have the procedure in the state where they are stationed. The ministry will also reimburse travel expenses.
Tuberville called the timing of the decision – announced just weeks before the midterm elections – “suspicious”.
Although the pending posts of confirmed leaders have been filled by high-ranking civilians on an interim basis, Singh said the confirmed political appointments are better able to guide the operations of the offices.
If the nominees aren’t confirmed by the end of the current Congress, Biden is expected to renominate them. The Senate is expected to conclude its work for the year by December 16, but could return for a few more days of legislative work before the end of the month.
Journalist Bryant Harris contributed to this story.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned him numerous accolades, including a 2009 Polk Award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism Award, and the VFW News Media Award.
Joe Gould is the Pentagon’s senior reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He was previously a congressional reporter.
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