GOP senators' latest effort to end Tuberville's military nominee blockade goes through the night -- and fails

"I wish we could resolve this," said Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan.

November 16, 2023, 12:32 PM

Despite another round of Republican infighting on the Senate floor lasting into the early-morning hours on Thursday, a group of GOP senators again failed to maneuver around Sen. Tommy Tuberville's blockade of military nominations over a Pentagon abortion policy.

It's the second time in as many weeks that a group of Tuberville's Republican colleagues, led by Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, have spent hours sharing stories of military heroes to argue they deserve confirmation. More than 400 military nominations are stalled because of Tuberville's blanket hold on the Senate confirming promotions for senior military officers.

Between midnight and 3:30 a.m., Ernst and Sullivan told of valor and bravery by dozens of military professionals. But that tactic once again didn't persuade Tuberville, or his new ally, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, to back down.

"I don't relish this at all -- I like working with my Republican colleagues. I wish we could resolve this. I'm on the floor here more out of sadness and frustration than anger, and I really do wish with my colleague Sen. Tuberville that we can find a way forward on this fast," Sullivan said.

He said he has spoken with members of the military who have told him that the blanket holds are creating a "readiness issue" that "is impacting the entire military."

"Why punish people who have seriously sacrificed for America -- more than probably anyone else here on the floor certainly -- over a policy they had nothing to do with?" Sullivan asked.

Ernst said Tuberville's holds hurt not only the military, but also national security.

PHOTO: Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to reporters after a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol October 24, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to reporters after a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol October 24, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

"I understand the national security risks that are out there and the detriment to readiness as we continue to hold over 450 of the finest men and women that have served their nation honorably under the flag of our nation in our uniform," she said.

Tuberville has been blocking Senate confirmation of hundreds of military nominees for more than nine months over objections to a Department of Defense policy that allows military members to be compensated for out-of-state travel to obtain an abortion. He asserts that it amounts to illegal taxpayer-funded abortion. Earlier this month, Tuberville said he "works for the American people" and speculated that many don't want their tax dollars to go toward service members' abortions.

"This is a policy that is illegal and immoral. This is about life and it's also about the rule of law. It's about our Constitution. It's about whether we make laws at the Pentagon or whether we follow the Constitution. This is also about the integrity of our military," Tuberville said in a floor speech last week. "I cannot simply sit idly by while the administration injects politics in our military and spends taxpayer money on abortion."

Thursday morning's floor activity happened after many senators had left town for Thanksgiving break -- having just passed a stopgap funding bill to keep the government open.

The late night did not dissuade Ernst and Sullivan from attempting a repeat of their Nov. 2 efforts to call up dozens of nominees for individual confirmation on the floor, only to be blocked by Tuberville.

PHOTO: Sen. Tommy Tuberville enters an elevator near the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, Nov. 15, 2023.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville enters an elevator near the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, Nov. 15, 2023.
Michael Reynolds/EPA via Shutterstock

Sullivan noted that after that session, members of the military and their families reached out to thank him for his support and help in moving the nominations forward.

"My colleagues and I -- we keep our word, we keep our word to our military," Sullivan said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., joined Ernst and Sullivan in their floor effort to push nominees through early Thursday morning.

Graham, in remarks before efforts to raise additional nominees, was more heated than he's been in the past as he expressed his frustration about what Tuberville is doing. He seemed to signal he might support a Democratic resolution that would allow the Senate to temporarily circumvent Tuberville's hold and allow the Senate to approve all nominees at once.

"I promise you, this will be the last holiday this happens. If it takes me to vote to break loose these folks, I will," Graham said. "To my pro-life friends, you're not advancing this cause. You're hurting this cause if the average American believes that the reason these people are getting blocked from promotion is because of a policy choice they didn't make."

Though senators held the floor for several hours overnight, unlike their last attempt in which Ernst and Sullivan collectively called for the confirmation of 64 different nominees, Thursday night's efforts saw only two nominees actually be blocked on the floor.

That's because Lee, a strict constitutionalist, joined Tuberville in his blockade. And he held the floor with two lengthy filibusters after each nominee was raised.

Lee said he did so not because he agrees with Tuberville's tactic, but because he believes in defending Tuberville's power as a single senator, under Senate rules, to exert a hold.

This argument has come into focus in recent days as the Senate has considered the Democratic resolution to get around Tuberville. Many Republicans have been reluctant to support that resolution, which would require the support of at least nine Republicans to pass, because they don't want to risk modifying the Senate rules or curtailing the power of individual senators.

Tuberville has been able to block nominees from being confirmed in large groups because the Senate rules require all 100 Senators to agree to expediting passage of things. Any member has the power to put a hold on any nominee for any reason. But military nominees are generally not blocked, because they're seen as apolitical.

"This is his right. It's a right that I will defend til my last breath for the simple reason that it is his right to do it and he is right to do it," Lee said as he defended Tuberville.

Tuberville has said in the past that he'd allow nominees to be confirmed individually. He has allowed for the confirmation of six high-profile military members that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has filed for individual confirmation of and forced the Senate to take procedural votes on.

But Sullivan and Ernst say their efforts do amount to individual consideration of nominees.

"He said I'm not holding up nominees from being approved, they can bring them to the floor one at a time and I won't block them," Sullivan said, citing Tuberville's long-held position. "That's what we're doing. By the way, Mr. President, this is regular order. We did research. There's been two times in the last half century where there was a recorded vote on a brigadier general. Twice. We're doing more than regular order here."

It's not clear whether Tuberville can be persuaded to come off of his hold. And the efforts overnight put a point on the growing number of Republicans who could be poised to take drastic steps to get around him.

Schumer has said he soon intends to bring the resolution to get around Tuberville to the floor. Whether there will be the nine Republicans necessary to support it is an open question.

ABC News' Sarah Beth Hensley contributed to this report.