GOP, White House In Standoff Over Military Nominations
Opposing beliefs, sincerely held, all but ensure that one side will eventually walk away an apostate in the eyes of their most faithful supporters.
Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville has placed a hold on hundreds of military promotions and nominations. The White House says his actions, a protest of a new Pentagon abortion policy, not only lessen military readiness but have taken members of the armed services and their families “hostage.”
For months, the Alabama Republican has refused to relent.
When the Supreme Court ruled last summer that there was no federal right to an abortion, returning the issue to the states, the Department of Defense not only began granting leave but started reimbursing travel expenses for military personnel who could not legally obtain an abortion in the state where they’re stationed.
The administration also refuses to relent. “You go where you’re assigned. You don’t get to choose,” John Kirby, President Biden’s national security spokesman, told RealClearPolitics while defending the policy. “What if you’re assigned to a state like Alabama?”
There are other questions, too: Who exactly is taking whom hostage, and who is the aggressor in the latest culture war, this one involving the department actually responsible for waging real wars?
Tuberville, as well as the House Republicans who just passed a defense reauthorization bill, insist that they are not pulling the Pentagon to the right so much as they are returning it to the center after Biden pushed the military to the left. Normally passing the National Defense Authorization Act is a bipartisan affair. Not this year.
The House version of the legislation would roll back the Pentagon abortion policy, prohibit spending on transgender surgery and treatment, and eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Speaker Kevin McCarthy said the bill was a down payment on the promise Republicans made to voters when they won the House, namely, to “stop using taxpayer money to do their own wokeism.”
The bill passed the House 219 to 210 and now heads to the Senate, where it faces an uphill battle. Its amendments on social policy are considered non-starters at the White House.
“A military cannot defend themselves,” McCarthy said last Thursday, “if you train them in woke.” On Monday, Kirby told RCP that the policies Republicans oppose, such as abortion access and guarantees to transgender servicemembers, are part of a “foundational sacred obligation.”
For his part, Tuberville has said that he will allow promotions to proceed if the Senate votes on the Pentagon’s abortion policy, something Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is loath to do. Tuberville also expressed interest in discussing his concerns directly with the president.
“I’d be willing to talk to him,” Biden countered last week while in Finland, “if I thought there was any possibility he’d change his ridiculous position on this. He’s jeopardizing U.S. security with what he’s doing.” Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the president has promised to “do all in my power” to protect abortion rights, a vow that inspired the new Pentagon policy.
Reverse that policy, Republicans counter, and military nominations and promotions can proceed. “You could fix this in nearly an instant,” Sen. Tedd Budd, a North Carolina Republican and close ally of Tuberville, told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a committee hearing last week.
Democrats have no interest in returning to that status quo. On Monday, Kirby offered a comprehensive rebuttal to Republican arguments that new social policies are not necessary for national defense.
“When you sign up and you make that contract, you have every right to expect that the organization – in this case, the military – is going to take care of you and they’re going to take care of your family,” he said. “And make sure that you can serve with dignity and respect no matter who you are or who you love or how you worship or don’t.”
Noting that one-fifth of the volunteer force are women, he said that abortion access could be the determining factor for whether female recruits enlist in the first place, reenlist, or remain in uniform once their obligation is fulfilled. If stationed in a state with abortion restrictions, Kirby added, “Do you say no, and you get out? Well, some people may decide to do that, and what does that mean? That means we lose talent, important talent.”
“Our policies, whether they’re diversity, inclusion, and equity or whether they’re about transgender individuals who qualify physically and mentally to serve to be able to do it with dignity,” he continued. “Or whether it’s about female servicemembers, one in five, or female family members being able to count on the kinds of health care and reproductive care specifically that they need to serve.”
These sorts of things, the spokesman told RCP, “can have an extremely significant impact on our recruiting and retention,” before adding, “not to mention, it is just the right darn thing to do for people who raise their hand and agree to serve in the military.”
But Republicans counter that the advent of new social policy has exacerbated the military’s recruiting shortfalls. “Wokeness at the DoD has harmed recruitment, retention and morale, wasted service members’ time and taxpayer’s dollars, and undermined the apolitical character of the military, which is a major threat to democracy and the American way of life,” Republican Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana and Mike Waltz, both veterans, wrote Army Secretary Christine Wormuth earlier this year.
The right and the left hold opposing positions on abortion, transgender policy, and equity as articles of faith. With hundreds of military promotions and hundreds of billions of dollars in military funding hanging in the balance, one side will have to give.