U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, arrives for a briefing on Ukraine at the U.S. Capitol on September 20, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Let’s remember the stakes of Tommy Tuberville’s months-long blockade of military promotions.
The Pentagon in February announced a new policy to help service members get abortion services, months after the U.S. Supreme Court gave states like Alabama the green light to to impose draconian restrictions on the procedure.
The policy gives members of the armed forces up to 21 days’ leave for abortion or fertility treatments. It reimburses them for travel expenses. And it prevents a health care provider from telling a commander about the nature of the person’s treatment.
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It’s a realistic way to provide critical health care.
And Alabama’s senior senator wants to get rid of it.
“Nine months ago, the Pentagon announced by memo that they would start using our taxpayer dollars to facilitate abortion,” Tuberville said in the Senate on Wednesday. “The Pentagon is now paying for travel and extra time off for service members and their dependents to get abortions. Congress never voted for this. We also never appropriated the money for this. There is no law that allows them to do this.”
To be clear: The Defense Department only pays for service members’ abortions when a patient’s life is threatened or the patient was a victim of sexual assault. That hasn’t changed. The policy covers travel expenses for a procedure women in the military must pay for out-of-pocket.
The Defense Department rejects Tuberville’s claims that what they’re doing is illegal, citing laws giving the secretary of defense broad powers to cover expenses from authorized travel. The DOD is providing assistance — and showing respect — to adults who make their own choices and spend their own money.
This is all irrelevant to Alabama’s senior senator. Tuberville wants to make the military the Alabama of reproductive health.
He wants people serving the country to travel hundreds of miles to get services that should be theirs by right. He wants enlisted women to pay even more for potentially life-saving care. He wants draconian state restrictions on abortion to take precedence over federal policy.
Those are the stakes.
But lately, Tuberville has seemed less interested in abortion and more interested in parliamentary procedure and spiting Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.
When Schumer brought three nominations to the floor last month, Tuberville crowed to Fox News that he had “forced his hand.”
When a Fox News journalist wrote that Tuberville allowing a vote on the confirmation of the Marines’ second-in-command after the commandant suffered a health emergency was an “about face,” Tuberville’s campaign account on Twitter/X/whatever complained that “journalists” (their quotation marks, not mine) had “zero understanding of what’s happening.”
“My hold is on unanimous consent, not the individuals,” the account said. “They can be voted on one at a time …. Just like always.” (When Tuberville’s Republican colleagues attempted to do so through voice votes on Wednesday, the senator blocked them.)
When other nominations came to the floor last week, the senator’s office sent out a statement saying Schumer “has now caved.”
If Tuberville is declaring victory, surely the Pentagon is changing or altering the travel policy, right?
The Defense Department isn’t yielding. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has noted on many occasions that women make up 20% of the armed forces.
“They don’t get a chance to pick where they’re assigned,” Austin said in July. “They’re serving their country. They’re sacrificing each and every day. They deserve, in my view and the view of our leadership, access to non-covered reproductive health care.”
Senate Democrats haven’t broken, either. Abortion access has become a major issue — and motivator — for Democratic voters since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year. Tuberville said on Wednesday that “abortion is the most important thing Democrats have and they will not negotiate.”
And why should they?
Tuberville’s hard-line anti-abortion views are in a tiny minority. Americans have told pollsters almost every year since 1995 that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
From a political standpoint, the senator is a gift to the Democrats’ 2024 campaigns: a right-wing politician punishing dedicated professionals because the Pentagon is helping women obtain a service that 69% of Americans think should be legal in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Swing district voters should expect to see Tuberville’s face a lot next year.
This may be why some of the senator’s Republican colleagues have started to publicly criticize him.
“[Chinese President] Xi Jinping is watching this right now, going, ‘I can’t believe they’re not letting these guys command. I’m scared to death of subs,’” Republican Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said Wednesday. “He’s loving this. So is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. They’re loving it. How dumb can we be, man?”
And even as Tuberville ran to cable news in September in an imitation of a victory lap, Schumer said he had “accomplished nothing.”
And he’s right.
Tuberville has allowed a handful of military personnel to be confirmed over the last month. And what has gotten in return?
No changes to the policy he’s protesting. No break in Democratic opposition. If anything, he’s undermining Republican messages on military readiness.
Sure, Tuberville has the approval of the Republican base. That will help in a state primary.
But if Republican primary voters truly, genuinely care about changing the Pentagon’s policy, they might ask themselves if Tuberville’s strategy is working.
Because after nine months, all the senator has is a stalemate, one that appears to be growing softer each day.
Maybe the senator recognizes this. Maybe that’s why we’re hearing more about his Democratic colleagues.
But make no mistake. In a battle with major consequences for the military and women around the nation, Tuberville is losing.
Alabama Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alabama Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Brian Lyman for questions: [email protected]. Follow Alabama Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.
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