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Tommy Tuberville's anti-abortion protest is causing outrage among Senate Republicans

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville has been blocking virtually all military promotions since February over his objection to an unrelated Pentagon abortion policy.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Last night, several of his fellow Republicans, including Senators Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, went to the Senate floor to try to force votes on the promotions of more than 60 military officers.

SHAPIRO: Each time, Tuberville objected.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JON OSSOFF: Senator from Alabama.

TOMMY TUBERVILLE: Reserving the right to object.

I object.

I object.

And so, Mr. President, I object.

OSSOFF: The objection is heard.

SUMMERS: Sullivan began things by saying he wanted the American people to know that, in all, 376 promotions are being held up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN SULLIVAN: It is estimated, by the end of this year, 89% of all general officer positions in the United States military will be affected by the current holds from Senator Tuberville.

SHAPIRO: Senator Ernst talked about the real impacts this is having on military families - spouses who've lost jobs because promotions are stuck in limbo, leaving the family with no idea where they will live and serve. And military kids?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONI ERNST: They are unable to reenroll in school or enroll in a new school since they do not have a permanent address.

SUMMERS: Tuberville, for his part, never changed his mind.

SHAPIRO: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales are following this. Hi, there.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Claudia, this process last night took four hours, with Republican senators growing angrier as it went on. You can hear the frustration. Is all this pressure making any difference?

GRISALES: Well, the Senate has been able to approve a few promotions here and there, but Tuberville is not budging on the vast majority of these. And he says this shouldn't be a surprise since he's been doing this for nine months. And he says he warned his Republican colleagues how last night was going to play out. He says he wanted to see one-by-one floor votes instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUBERVILLE: I told them beforehand. You know, I didn't want to embarrass them right there in front of everybody. I told them I wanted a floor vote. That wasn't a floor vote, OK?

GRISALES: So he was pretty defensive on his plans going forward. And he's holding this stance, opposing these nominees as a result of a Pentagon policy that allows service members to get assistance to seek abortion care.

SHAPIRO: Tom, you've been covering this for months, and it seemed to finally take a heart attack from a senior U.S. officer to move this debate along in the Senate. What happened?

BOWMAN: Well, that's right. The top marine officer, Gen. Eric Smith, had a heart attack over the weekend and now is in stable condition. His family is asking for privacy. But a few weeks back, Ari, Gen. Smith said he's working - get this - from 5:30 in the morning until 11:30 at night because he was doing two jobs, including that of his deputy, who was only confirmed just today. And Gen. Smith told a group a few weeks back that his work schedule is unsustainable - his word. So you're right. It took a heart attack for the Senate, basically, to do its job.

The Senate just today approved Adm. Lisa Franchetti as the Navy's top officer and also Gen. David Allvin to lead the Air Force. And as I said, the No. 2 Marine officer, Lt. Gen. Chris Mahoney, also was confirmed. The Senate leader, Democrat Chuck Schumer, said he was willing to hold votes on just some of the most important nominees. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he was glad for those votes today but said there are hundreds more, and the military must be at full strength.

SHAPIRO: So when you look across the armed forces, how is this broadly affecting the military?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, it depends who you talk with. Some say it's quite disruptive. There are those, like Gen. Smith, who are doing two jobs. The Army doesn't have a confirmed No. 2 officer as well. Some officers want to retire and are being told to stay. Others can't move to a new job because they haven't been confirmed. I'm told there's even one senior officer slated for promotion considering just retiring.

Now, others say the greater impact is on the families of senior officers that we just heard. You know, spouses who are planning to move and accept a job offer now have to scrap that plan. Kids can't enroll in a new school and are staying put - so very frustrating for families.

SHAPIRO: So Claudia, how is this impacting Republicans in the Senate?

GRISALES: Well, it's clear they're running out of patience, especially those with military backgrounds who were on the floor last night confronting Tuberville. I asked Joni Ernst. She happens to be an ex-Army officer, a combat veteran. She told me they're going to do this again next week, and she hopes more Republicans join them. And she went on to tell reporters about the risks here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERNST: We are really hurting the readiness. You hear people say they're not - it is hurting the readiness of our military. Our adversaries are watching us. We have to get this issue resolved.

GRISALES: And we should note this is forcing Senate Republicans to step into abortion politics, which can be a political loser for moderates and explains in part why it's taken Republicans so long to confront Tuberville. That said, Senate Democrats are looking at a procedural workaround that could go through with Republican support to approve the vast majority of these at once - maybe - in the coming days.

SHAPIRO: All right. NPR's Claudia Grisales and Tom Bowman. Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

GRISALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.