President Joe Biden said Thursday that Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville is being “irresponsible” and jeopardizing national security by blocking military promotions over his objections to the Defense Department’s reproductive health policies.
“I’d be willing to talk to him if I thought there was any possibility he would change his ridiculous position on this. He’s jeopardizing US security with what he’s doing,” Biden said during a news conference in Helsinki, Finland, when asked by CNN about Tuberville’s position.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s office attempted to set up a call between the secretary and Tuberville on Thursday, but the Alabama senator’s office declined the opportunity, saying he did not have time for a call on Thursday or this weekend, a senior defense official told CNN. Tuberville had complained that Austin has not tried to reach him about his hold on military nominations in protest of the Pentagon’s reproductive health policies.
A defense official told CNN Austin and Tuberville eventually spoke at about 1:30 p.m. Thursday. Tuberville’s office said that the call with Austin was “productive” and “cordial” and Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said, “During the brief call, Secretary Austin explained to Senator Tuberville the impact the holds are having to military readiness and uncertainty in the force.”
Tuberville has blocked hundreds of military promotions as a way to protest new Pentagon policies on reproductive health care, which among other things included a travel allowance for service members who must go out of state to receive an abortion. As of July 7, Tuberville’s hold was impacting 265 senior military officers – including high-profile roles like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commandant of the Marine Corps.
An internal assessment put together by the Pentagon and obtained by CNN says the holds affect the families of 84 officers awaiting confirmation, including officers who have paid out of pocket to move their families, military spouses who have left their jobs anticipating new assignments, and children unable to enroll in new schools.
The hold disrupts what is typically a routine process of confirming hundreds of military nominations at once known as unanimous consent. With Tuberville’s hold in place, the Senate would need to take each nomination to the floor for an individual vote, which could take months and hundreds of hours of floor time to complete.
“I don’t ever recall that happening, ever. It’s just totally irresponsible in my view,” Biden said.
Tuberville insisted earlier this week in an interview with CNN that he is not blocking confirmations and that the Senate had plenty of time to take up the nominees. Tuberville has not backed down from maintaining his block on nominations as he protests the Defense Department’s reproductive health policies, claiming there is no impact on national security and no risk to US military readiness.
Speaking to CNN’s Manu Raju after Biden’s comments, Tuberville said, “It doesn’t sound like anybody that wants to sit down and visit and work the problem out. It sounds like somebody who wants to argue, and I’m not in this to argue.”
Tuberville added: “There’s no chance of changing my position if we don’t sit down and visit. I mean, that’s what you do up here, supposedly, I’m sure he did that over his career of being a senator but he doesn’t want to do it, we won’t do it. We’ll just keep going.”
Biden said he expected the Republican party to “stand up” to Tuberville’s hold and “do something about it.”
“I’m confident that the mainstream Republican Party … does not support what he’s doing but they’ve got to stand up and be counted. That’s how it ends,” he said.
Tuberville said bluntly that wouldn’t happen.
“Well, that’s not gonna happen,” Tuberville told Raju. “You know, that. I’ve already told that’s not gonna happen. I’m doing it for, not for the Republican Party. I’m doing it for Republicans and Democrats and citizens of this country. I’m not doing it for just Republicans. I’m doing it for the Constitution.”
CNN reported in June that some of Tuberville’s colleagues have tried to talk with him behind the scenes about alternatives. Multiple GOP senators including Armed Services Committee top Republican Roger Wicker, Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa have talked with Tuberville, careful not to deploy a pressure campaign, but instead understand what he’s aiming to accomplish.
In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer earlier on Thursday, Austin echoed Biden’s thoughts.
“This is a national security issue. It’s a readiness issue. And, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. I think any member of the Senate Armed Services Committee knows that,” Austin said in an interview Thursday with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer following the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
“One in five of my troops … is a woman and our women provide tremendous value to this force and I think we need to do everything we can to take care of them,” Austin added.
When asked if the Pentagon will continue to pay for women to go to other states, if necessary, to get an abortion, Austin said, “That’s our policy,” he said.
“I don’t have an abortion policy, I have an access to non-covered reproductive health care policy,” he added.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Lauren Fox, Nicky Robertson, Clare Foran, Haley Britzky and Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.