Inside the closed-door meeting where Tuberville caved

Last updated on December 9, 2023

For months, Democrats hounded Sen. Tommy Tuberville to drop his blanket hold on hundreds of senior military promotions over the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy. In November, Tuberville’s fellow Republicans joined in.

The Alabama Republican wouldn’t budge. Then a member of his own party threatened to whip votes against him.

During a closed-door Senate Republican lunch on Nov. 28, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) gave a fiery 10-minute speech, the latest in a series of attempts to get Tuberville to relent. In remarks that haven’t been previously reported, Sullivan announced that he had exhausted all of his options and that it was time to join Democrats in a vote to undo the blanket holds.

Sullivan, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, leaned on his status as the Senate’s only serving military officer. He warned that an exodus of military officers was coming if the nominees weren’t confirmed before the end of the year. If that happened, they would have to be renominated.

“One [commanding officer] I know personally told me: ‘I’m apolitical but one group of elected officials always had our backs — Republican senators. Now you guys hate us — the world has been turned upside down,’” Sullivan said, according to remarks obtained by POLITICO.

At that point, it had been more than seven months without a breakthrough despite the opposition of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other senior Republicans to Tuberville’s hardball tactics.

The standoff, which centered on a Defense Department policy to reimburse and provide leave for service members who need to travel to receive abortions, largely ended this week when Tuberville abandoned most of his holds and allowed their immediate confirmations.

This account is based on more than a dozen interviews with senators and aides closely involved in or tracking the dispute.

While Sullivan was among the most visible and forceful of his GOP colleagues, a bloc of Republican senators — including several military veterans — had been actively plotting a way to end the blockade.

Senate Republicans were caught between Tuberville’s hold and a resolution by Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) to undo it. The resolution would have allowed all but a few of the stalled military promotions — which Tuberville was holding up in protest of the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy — to be approved in one big bloc. Reed’s measure would need nine or 10 Republicans.

At the Nov. 28 meeting, Sullivan announced he’d back the Democratic-led resolution, urging other Republican colleagues to join him.

“Like being pro-life, this is a core principle that distinguishes Republicans from Democrats,” he told senators. “For that reason, if we’re forced to take this vote on the Reed [resolution], a number of us will feel compelled to support it. My hope is that instead of a vote of nine or 10 of us, that this could be a vote of 30 or 40.”

Tuberville, known throughout his conference as “Coach,” after his college football days, said in response at the conference meeting: “Listen, everyone. I got y’all into this mess. I’m gonna get you out.”

After the meeting, he gave the first public hints that he might relent. Then on Tuesday, he announced he was backing off his hold of nominees for three-star posts and below — the solution Sullivan proposed to him.

Tuberville told reporters he decided to back down when he saw he had no recourse through the annual defense authorization bill, which was in negotiations, and that Democrats had enough Republican votes to pass the Reed resolution.

Sullivan hadn’t acted alone. Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican and retired National Guard officer who served in Iraq, was among the senators pressing him privately to find an off-ramp.

“Dan and I had worked with Coach for a very long time — months and months — and we were just racking our brains trying to offer him different off-ramps,” Ernst said in an interview. “We’re all very pro-life. But we just wanted for these [nominations] to move.”

Ernst, who said there was no bad blood between her and Tuberville after the dispute, said she spoke up during weekly GOP lunches “many times” over many months on the holds.

This fall, Sullivan raised the matter at every Republican lunch, to a degree some colleagues, Sullivan admits, thought it was grating or even counterproductive. While he says he never enjoyed putting a colleague on the spot, pointing to the impact on readiness amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s war against Hamas had to be done — and it was working, he argues.

“I think in the fall, when we started to bring it up in the conference, a lot, starting in October, it did raise the issue with a number of senators who were like, ‘whoa,’” Sullivan said in an interview after the hold was lifted. “It was the combo of readiness and the very dangerous world that we’re in right now.”

Plus, there was the role played by Reed and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who crafted the resolution allowing senators to sidestep the regular process, giving Sullivan and others a stick if Tuberville didn’t take their carrot.

Reed, an Army veteran himself, said the dam began to break when five Republicans confronted Tuberville on the Senate floor. All but Utah Sen. Mitt Romney are veterans: Ernst, Sullivan, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who served in the Air Force as a lawyer, and Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, who served as a Marine officer.

Tuberville objected to confirmation and blocked each one of them. The pattern repeated itself several weeks later when the Alabama Republican and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) objected into the wee hours of the morning to again prevent the confirmation of promotions.

“I think Sen. Sullivan did a remarkable job of reminding everyone in the [Republican] caucus of their duties to military personnel,” Reed said in an interview. “They’re men and women who risk their lives constantly and they’re not just political chits.”

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who was working to gather Republican supporters for Reed’s resolution, likewise credited that group. Early on, Kelly held several private conversations with Tuberville to explain, from Kelly’s perspective as a 25-year Navy veteran, the damage Tuberville was doing to national security and to the careers and families of service members.

“And that didn’t work,” Kelly said in an interview. “The thing that obviously worked was the political pressure from his own colleagues, just their strategy of putting this pressure on him is what got it done.”

Tuberville talked about that pressure in Senate floor remarks on Wednesday, and indicated repeatedly this week that he had no regrets about his gambit.

“Unfortunately, last month, even some of my Republican colleagues attacked me — and attacked me personally — here on this floor,” he said. “They are currently in the military, and they were standing up for their colleagues, which is fine. But I can stand and we all can stand for the life of the unborn and for our military. You can do both.”

Multiple lawmakers described the months of fierce and emotional internal GOP discussions before the breakthrough, characterizing the dispute as one over strategy rather than disagreement over opposition to the Pentagon abortion policy.

However, senators are wary as to whether Tuberville has set a troubling precedent for other members to hold up nominations without a credible path toward success amid their policy disagreements with any administration.

“There was no endgame. There’s no strategy,” Romney said in an interview. “It was not a plan that thought about how to actually succeed.”