Sullivan attempts to break fellow senator’s blockade on military promotions

man standing at a microphone
Sen. Dan Sullivan in Anchorage in July 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan launched a dramatic political maneuver against a fellow Republican on the Senate floor Wednesday in a clash that pits two deeply-held Republican values against each other: opposition to abortion and support for the military. 

Sullivan, leading a band of other Republicans, is attempting to break Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s hold on hundreds of military promotions that require Senate confirmation. 

Since February, Tuberville, R-Ala., has single-handedly blocked 376 promotions. Tuberville said he’s trying to force a change in a new Department of Defense policy he objects to.

“The Pentagon is now paying for travel and extra time off for service members and their dependents to get abortions,” Tuberville explained on the Senate floor. “Congress never voted for this … . There is no law that allows them to do this.”

Sullivan doesn’t like the policy either. He proclaimed himself “as pro-life as they come.” But he said Tuberville is doing damage to the military and punishing officers who had nothing to do with the policy. 

Sullivan decided he was done trying to reason with Tuberville and on Wednesday evening took the dispute to the Senate floor. 

“We literally have American troops under attack in the Middle East,” Sullivan said, his voice rising at times for emphasis. “As a member of the Armed Services Committee, as a U.S. Marine Corps Colonel, I know — we all know here in the Senate: America needs its best players, most combat-capable leaders, on the field. And right now, that’s not happening.”

Sullivan spoke of decorated generals and colonels who can’t step up to their command positions. So did Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Todd Young of Indiana, among others. They brought up the officers names, one by one, read their career accomplishments and asked for unanimous consent that the Senate approve them. 

Tuberville’s response was the same each time: “I object.”

And so it went, for hours into the night. 

“If we need to call all 376, I’ll be glad to do it,” said Graham, who argued that Tuberville should go to court if he thinks the policy is illegal. 

It was a very public airing of a fight that’s been brewing behind the scenes. It breaks with Senate tradition. But on its own, the drama in the Senate Chamber didn’t change anything. Tuberville’s holds remained in place. 

It could, though, build support in the Senate in the coming days to lift the rules and approve a list of military promotions without unanimous consent. 

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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