Tuberville’s tantrum leaves Marines in a highly unusual position

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U.S. senators’ willingness to abuse “procedural holds” has clearly reached an unusual level. In recent months, for example, members have stood in the way of Justice Department nominees, EPA nominees, and State Department nominees, including dozens of would-be U.S. ambassadors.

But the most indefensible example comes by way of Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who has imposed a blockade against U.S. military promotions, as part of a tantrum over abortion policy. And while we’ve discussed this controversy several times, the Alabama Republican’s tactics are taking on a greater significance today. As reported:

Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s hold on military nominations means the Biden Administration won’t be able to permanently replace a top leader in the Marine Corps who is required by law to leave his post on Monday. Commandant Gen. David Berger must step down Monday from his four-year tour, a term of service that cannot be extended unless the U.S. is at war or in the event of a national emergency.

For the last 164 years, the Marines have been led by a Senate-confirmed commandant. As Gen. Berger retires, that will change today, thanks entirely to one person.

For those who might be new to this story, let’s briefly recap how we arrived at this point.

For generations, the Senate has confirmed promotions for U.S. military officers as a matter of course. The process has always been simple, quick, and efficient — the nominees are usually packaged together for one uncontroversial vote — not only to benefit those in uniform and their families, but also because senators don’t want to be seen as anti-military.

At least, not usually. Tuberville, however, has spent most of the year blocking 184 military promotions — not because he has concerns about officers’ qualifications, but as part of a broader tantrum over a policy dispute.

The GOP senator — whose most meaningful association with the military was coaching the losing team in the 2014 Military Bowl — objects to a Pentagon policy that provides troops and their family members paid leave and stipends to travel for abortions or for fertility treatments. Tuberville is apparently of the opinion that the policy is at odds with existing federal law. He has no background in such matters, and lawyers who know what they’re talking about completely disagree, but that hasn’t swayed the senator, who hasn’t budged.

The Alabaman’s blockade has been condemned by the Pentagon, which has said the Republican senator’s tactics pose a “clear risk” to the nation’s military readiness and directly affect the lives of service members’ families. What’s more, literally every living former Defense secretary from the past quarter-century — including two former Republican members of the Senate — recently signed on to a joint statement to Senate leaders with a simple message: Tuberville is hurting the military with his blockade.

Even other GOP senators have expressed discomfort with the Alabaman’s antics. Indeed, his own Republican colleagues have tried to get him to back off, but that hasn’t worked, either.

It wasn’t long before some started wondering who put this terrible idea in Tuberville’s head. The answer, according to a Washington Post report published in late May, was Morgan Murphy — a former food critic who’s served as Tuberville’s top military aide. After Murphy resigned, some hoped that the far-right lawmaker might shift gears. At least so far, he has not.

What’s more, while the developments with the Marine Corps today have brought the controversy to the fore, the real-world effects are even broader. As The New York Times reported today, “Mr. Tuberville’s tactics are on the brink of disrupting the Pentagon’s ability to fill its top ranks. More than half of the current Joint Chiefs are expected to step down from their posts during the next few months without a Senate-approved successor in place, leaving the president’s chief military advisory body in an unprecedented state of flux at a time of escalating tensions with China and Russia.”

By way of a defense, a Tuberville spokesperson told the Times that members can, as a procedural matter, still “take votes” on these nominees, despite the holds.

It’s not quite that simple. As a recent Washington Post editorial explained, “Holds cannot ultimately stop confirmations, but breaking through them requires significant and valuable Senate floor time — typically two or three days per nomination.”

Given the number of nominees conservative senators are now holding up, we’re talking about a confirmation process that should take hours, but which would instead take several months.

And so, this wildly unnecessary mess persists, with no end in sight, thanks entirely to one Republican who appears entirely indifferent to the consequences of his actions.

This post updates our related earlier coverage.

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”

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