Senate Democrats are working with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and a handful of Republicans on a rarely used procedural tactic to defeat Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) blockade of more than 360 military promotions, a stalemate that has consumed the Senate for months.
Democrats are looking at using a standing order resolution to move a block of more than 300 nonpolitical military nominees who have been stalled for months because of Tuberville’s holds to protest the Department of Defense’s (DOD) abortion policies.
The resolution would allow the Senate to move military promotions in a group through the end of 2024, providing exceptions for officers nominated to a position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff or to lead a Combatant Command.
Sources familiar with internal deliberations said the standing order resolution would likely get introduced next week unless Tuberville drops his holds.
It will first move through the Senate Rules Committee.
“It’s not a rules change, it’s a standing order resolution because no one wants to fool around with the rules,” explained a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.
The senator emphasized the resolution would be “limited to military nominations.”
Sinema came up with the idea and started working with colleagues in both parties on it in early September.
It would need strong bipartisan support and at least 60 votes to overcome an expected filibuster. Democrats now control 51 seats and Republicans control 49.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there’s already been “a good bit” of outreach to Republicans on the proposal.
The resolution is already getting strong pushback from conservatives within the Senate GOP conference, and Democrats face a tough challenge in rounding up the nine Republican votes needed to pass it.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said it will “probably” be a heavy lift to find the nine or 10 Republican votes needed to roll Tuberville.
“There’s a lot of discussion out there around it. We’ll see where that lands,” he said.
No Republican senator has yet expressed public support for the resolution, and those viewed as most likely to vote “yes” say they would prefer to resolve the impasse in another way.
One conservative senator warned there will be an intense political backlash against any GOP senator that votes with Democrats to circumvent Tuberville’s protest of the Pentagon’s policy of paying the travel expenses of service members who take leave to obtain abortions.
“I think that would be a hard vote for senators to take. I don’t know how you can seriously talk about the prerogatives of the institution and defending the rules if you’re willing to go out and kneecap one of your own senators who’s objecting to unanimous consent, which we do all the time,” said the lawmaker.
“It’s one thing that almost all Republican voters agree on — high-propensity [GOP] voters are pro-life,” the senator said. “It’s going to get reported that they’re not supporting Tuberville’s pro-life issue.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the military promotions being held up by Tuberville should come to the floor individually for votes, not en bloc, which would effectively limit the power of senators to raise objections against specific nominees.
“An effort to get around Tuberville’s hold? No, I think we should vote on them individually. I’m not in favor of every one of those nominees, but there are some that we should move on and he’s open to moving on them individually,” Rubio.
“The point he’s raising with the Pentagon is that they’re violating current law,” Rubio argued, citing the longstanding prohibition on spending federal dollars on abortions.
Pentagon officials, however, point to an October 2022 memo by the Department of Defense’s general counsel stating that federal law “does not prohibit the use of funds to pay expenses, such as per diem or travel expenses, that are incidental to the abortion.”
And Democrats argue moving the nominees individually would eat up valuable floor time and set a bad precedent.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was spotted chatting Thursday afternoon in the Ohio Clock Corridor with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who is working on the resolution to advance the stalled military promotions en bloc.
Reed declined to answer any questions about procedural tactics.
McConnell has said repeatedly that he does not support Tuberville’s hold, making the GOP leader a potential candidate to vote for moving the military promotions in one large package.
But other members of McConnell’s leadership team wouldn’t say whether they would support the resolution to circumvent Tuberville’s blockade.
“It depends on what that says. I’d much rather [see] the DOD change the policy, but we’ll see what happens,” Senate Republican Policy Committee Chair Joni Ernst (Iowa) said, referring to the Defense Department’s abortion policy.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another member of McConnell’s leadership team, said he hasn’t decided whether to vote for a resolution to advance most of the stalled military promotions.
“We are trying to find a path out of the current situation,” he said, adding he hasn’t yet “looked” at the resolution set to drop next week.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) distanced himself from the talks about finding a way to get around Tuberville.
“I’m not part of that,” he said.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who has worked for months to try to broker a compromise between Tuberville, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Senate Democrats, told The Hill that he hopes a standing order resolution won’t be needed to advance the military promotions.
“They’ve been warning that they’re going to do this for quite some time. It’s not the way that I’m trying to resolve this. To me, I’m still working to continue to get [nominations] over the goal line and find what I’m calling a universal resolution,” he said.
He said passing a resolution to move the nominees as a group, thereby circumventing Tuberville, “is not my choice.”
But he said “it’s probably going to bring this issue to a head.”
“The rumor I’m hearing [is] if that doesn’t work, they might try to go nuclear,” he said, warning that Democrats could try to move the more than 300 stalled nominees through a ruling of the Senate chair, a highly controversial maneuver known as the “nuclear option.”
Such a move would require only a simple majority, but Sinema and centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) stood firm against invoking the nuclear option to move voting legislation in 2022.
“I’m hopeful we don’t have to do any of these things, and I’m still working,” Sullivan said.