Sullivan puts on the pressure but Alabama senator hasn’t loosened his grip on hundreds of blocked military promotions

The underside of the U.S. Capitol dome, as viewed from the Rotunda. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

There’s no resolution yet in the pressure campaign U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan launched against a fellow Republican to get more than 300 military promotions to the Senate floor for confirmation. Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama shows no sign of relenting and, as a leaked email shows, the move carries some political risk for Sullivan.

Normally, the Senate approves dozens of these military promotions at a time, without debate or a rollcall vote, because no one objects. But Tuberville put a hold on them, to protest a Pentagon abortion policy.

After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Sullivan took the fight public in an unusual night on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Over the course of nearly five hours — until almost 11 p.m. — Sullivan and a handful of like-minded GOP senators described the heroics and accomplishments of 61 of the nominees and how the logjam is hurting the military. That forced the Alabama freshman to object to them outloud. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., vowed to be back next week to keep it up.

Sullivan seemed to get more infuriated as the night went on, culminating in this summary of the career of Marine Col. Kelvin Gellman, a combat helicopter pilot who’s been nominated for brigadier general. 

“‘He recovered nine U.S. casualties, previously killed in action,'” Sullivan recited, then looked away from the paper he was reading from and continued at a shout. “He went and got dead Americans so they wouldn’t be left in the desert of Iraq! … . Whatever you think of this issue — and we all agree, we agree with the senator from Alabama — THIS IS NOT THE GUY TO MAKE A POINT WITH!”

“The point,” for Tuberville, is to oppose abortion. Military health care doesn’t include the procedure but the Pentagon announced it’s now paying travel expenses and allowing time off for women who need to travel to get an abortion. 

Tuberville sat in the back of the Senate chamber and listened to Sullivan describe officer after officer. Sullivan, and the other senators who joined him, would end each bio by asking that the Senate approve the promotion by unanimous consent. Sixty one times, Tuberville stood up and gave the same response: “I object.”

That’s all it takes to block a promotion from the usual Senate fast track.

Sullivan said he’s also against abortion and the Pentagon policy. Tuberville, he said, should put a hold on a civilian Pentagon nominee who has a say in it, not uniformed officers.

Sullivan is winning praise from people fed up with Tuberville’s holds, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski. But he’s also getting flack on social media from abortion opponents, and a Tuberville staffer is apparently trying to leverage that reaction.

Politico reports that Tuberville’s communications director emailed anti-abortion groups suggesting they “make clear” that any Republican who tries to break the Tuberville’s holds will get a primary challenger. Tuberville called the email a mistake and said he didn’t approve it. 

The Senate on Thursday confirmed three high-ranking military appointments, including that of Admiral Lisa Franchetti, the first woman to lead the Navy. But senators didn’t use the normal fast track that allows them to confirm entire lists of officers at a time. It would consume the Senate’s working hours if they had to do the same for the hundreds of military officers awaiting Senate confimation. So they remain in limbo.

It would take nine Republicans voting with all Senate Democrats to bypass Tuberville’s blockade. 

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

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