Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned Tuesday that military readiness could be impaired by the growing list of senior military nominations being blocked by Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville over his opposition to a Pentagon abortion policy.
"Not approving the recommendation for promotions actually creates a ripple effect with the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be," Austin said responding to a question from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., during a hearing on the Pentagon's defense budget.
Tuberville has been blocking military nominations since last month, over a Pentagon policy that covers the travel costs of service members seeking abortions in states outside of where they are stationed if their base is located in a state that bans the procedure.
Austin spoke directly to Tuberville at the hearing over the military's need to promote officials during "one of the most complex times" seen in recent years.
"I really implore you to reconsider and allow our nominations to move forward. It will make a significant difference for our force," Austin said.
After the hearing, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D, N.Y., lambasted Tuberville for blocking the Pentagon promotions.
"GOP Senator Tuberville is inflicting unnecessary damage to our military by blocking the promotion of 160 officers," Schumer said in a tweet.
"For what? So he can push the MAGA hard line on blocking women's choice? Women in the military are more than capable of making their own healthcare decisions," Schumer said.
"We're in a situation now where we are beginning to see critical positions that are in jeopardy of not being filled," Reed added.
"If this continues, we will have within a few months, no leadership in significant [parts of the military]. In fact, almost the entire Department of Defense will have acting people, will have temporary people, and we need leadership right now," he said.
Tuberville remained steadfast in opposition, arguing the policy was implemented without input from Congress.
"Y'all got the American taxpayer on the hook to pay for travel and time off for selective abortions. And you did not make this with anybody in this room. Or Congress taking a vote. In fact, this contradicts what Congress has actually voted for," he said.
"I'm not going to let our military be politicized. I want our military to be the strongest and the deadliest it has ever been. But I also want the administration to follow the law. As long as I have a voice in this body, Congress will write the laws. Not the secretary of defense, not the Joint Chiefs," he said.
Austin said his decision was based on "strong legal ground," although he agreed to cooperate with Congress.
"Almost one in five of our troops are women. And they don't get a chance to choose where their station, so almost 80,000 of our women are stationed in places that where they don't have access to non-covered reproductive health care," Austin said.
"And I heard from our troops, I heard from our senior leaders, I heard from our chiefs, and also our secretaries and this policy is based on strong legal grounds. And it is not a law. It is a policy. And so, you know, we obviously don't pass laws in the Department of Defense," Austin said. "But again, I assure you that we have great respect for this body, Congress, and we will do everything within our power to make sure that we continue to work with Congress."
Tuberville's hold on nominations may also have an impact on the process to pick a successor to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark A. Milley whose tenure ends Sept. 30.
No name has been put forward yet for Milley's replacement but it's strongly believed that the two leading contenders are Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown and Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps.