Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 28.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 28. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Defense Secretary to Senator: Lift Your Holds on Our Nominees and Promotions

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., placed the holds in objection to the Pentagon’s policies on reproductive health care for service members.

The Defense secretary stated Tuesday that “it will make a significant difference to our force” if a senator stops blocking consideration of the Pentagon’s nominees and promotions over objections to its reproductive health care policies enacted after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee implored Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., to reconsider his decision to place holds that Tuberville’s communications adviser Steven Stafford said affected at least two civilian nominations (assistant secretary of Defense for industrial base policy and deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment) and 158 general and flag officer promotions as of Monday. “Not approving the recommendations for promotions actually creates a ripple effect through the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be,” Austin testified.

Tuberville asserted during the hearing that his hold is not directly related to the Supreme Court’s decision reversing Roe v. Wade. “This is about not forcing the taxpayers of this country to fund abortion. That’s been a bipartisan consensus for more than 40 years,” he told witnesses. “The military has performed abortions for years–all were cases of rape, incest and harm to the mom. Over the 40 years, I don’t recall one military person ever complaining that we weren’t performing enough abortions.” 

The senator took exception to Defense Department policies issued following the overturning of Roe, including a recent one to provide more reproductive services support to troops and their families. “Y'all got the American taxpayer on the hook to pay for travel and time off for elective abortions and you did not make this [policy] with anybody in this room or Congress taking a vote,” he said. “This contradicts what Congress has actually voted for,” he added, referring to the Hyde Amendment. That amendment bans the use of federal funds for abortions, with certain exceptions.

But Austin noted that “almost one in five of our troops are women and they don’t get a chance to choose where they’re stationed, so almost 80,000 of our women are stationed in places where they don’t have access to non-covered reproductive health care.” He added: “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.” Austin tried to assure lawmakers that the Pentagon has respect for Congress and will continue to work with it. 

Tuberville has been objecting to the Defense Department’s reproductive policies for a while now and has placed other holds. 

“Senator Tuberville’s hold forces the Senate to consider and vote on the nominations by regular order instead of approving them in batches by unanimous consent,” Stafford told Government Executive on Tuesday. “The nominations can still move forward if [Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.] deems them important enough to put on the floor for a vote.” 

Tuberville is one of many Republican lawmakers who have objected to Defense’s policies since the overturning of Roe. Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., also raised concerns during the hearing, to which Austin responded, “this policy does not fund abortions. I want to be clear on that.”

However, that did not appease the senator and he said he would also consider putting holds on nominations “in solidarity with my colleagues.” 

Schumer called Tuberville’s actions “reckless” on Tuesday. “It puts American security in jeopardy.” 

Also on Monday, a group of 38 senators (Democrats and Independents) sent a letter to Austin underscoring the importance of the department's reproductive care policies following the Supreme Court’s decision, 13 states’ total ban on abortions and other states working to limit them severely. 

The lawmakers wrote: “Recruiting and retention will only be made more challenging as states continue to ban or restrict access to abortion services, sending a message that certain service members’ autonomy and ability to get the health care they need does not matter, and putting into place additional barriers and undue burdens for service members and their families.”