Senate moves to vote on three top nominees. But will more follow?

The majority leader had hoped that GOP’s Tuberville would lift his blanket hold.

This story was updated at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

In the seven months since Sen. Tommy Tuberville declared he would not permit the Senate to hold confirmation votes on groups of senior military officers, the Alabama Republican has frequently pointed out that Democratic leaders could bring nominations to the floor one by one. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has refused, noting that there is no practical way to stage individual votes for the hundreds of officers whom Tuberville is keeping from their next jobs.

On Wednesday, a crack appeared in the frozen process. Tuberville planned to file cloture—a procedural move necessary to move forward on a vote—on Gen. Eric Smith’s nomination to be Marine Corps commandant. But Schumer beat him to the punch, having apparently concluded that removing the “acting” title from the people nominated to run the Joint Chiefs and their services was more important than a pressure campaign that shows no sign of working. 

On Wednesday, Schumer advanced three nominations to the Senate floor: Smith; Air Force Gen. CQ Brown to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. Randy George to be the Army’s chief of staff.

The Senate approved Brown's nomination and advanced George's nomination Wednesday evening before adjourning. The body will vote on George's nomination and consider Smith's on Thursday. 

“It's not the path the vast majority of senators on either side of the aisle want to go down. But Sen. Tuberville is forcing us to confront his obstruction head on,” Schumer said. “I want to make clear to my Republican colleagues: this cannot continue. We cannot continue down this path. It threatens the ability of the Senate and the leadership of both sides to work together to get things done for the American people. And it threatens the non-political nature of our military service members.”

If all three men are confirmed, there will still be 316 military nominations still held up by Tuberville, according to the Pentagon. The senator imposed the hold after the Pentagon declared it would help troops travel for reproductive health care if they are among the 46 percent of military women stationed in states that have increased restrictions on abortion since last year’s Supreme Court decision.

It’s unclear whether this is a one-off event or the beginning of more votes to come. Either way, it would take weeks to get through all the nominations individually, according to the Congressional Research Service. And military and defense leaders have said delays to the orderly rotation of leaders are hurting readiness and could take years to recover from.

Republicans and supporters of Tuberville’s holds responded on social media to the cloture motion by blaming Schumer and his months of inaction on the nominees.

“Sen. Schumer is showing exactly what he could have been doing with our military nominations months and months ago. And yet refused to do that,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said. “He is the one that has been holding hostage the military men and women that serve this country. So why the heck didn’t he do it sooner?”

After the cloture vote on Brown’s nomination, Tuberville, who voted “nay,” took to the Senate floor to say “it’s about time” they voted on the military nominees, adding that he’s “called for individual votes on these nominees for almost six months.” 

“So to be clear: My hold is still in place. The hold will remain in place as long as the Pentagon's illegal abortion policy remains in place,” said Tuberville, who in July blocked an earlier attempt to confirm Smith. (He also sought to overturn election results in 2020.) “If the Pentagon lifts the policy, then I will lift my hold. It’s easy as that. That’s been my position from the very beginning. I'm not afraid to vote on these nominees or on all of these nominees. I came here to this chamber to vote. And I reserve the right to seek another cloture position on the nominees in the future. So that's where we stand today.”

On Tuesday, Democratic senators gathered on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol building by posters displaying the names, photos, and positions of the 300-plus nominees in limbo.

“And this is where I call on my Republican colleagues and let them know that they are complicit in this as well,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said during the event Tuesday. “As long as they allow him to move forward with this, we are going to continue to jeopardize our national security. This is not just on Tommy Tuberville, this is on the Republicans as well, because they are letting him do this. They are not putting pressure on him to stop these holds.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, noted after the event that some high-profile Republicans have already spoken out against the holds, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“I think more and more it will happen because this is getting through to a lot of people that it's harming our national security, it's certainly harming our men and women in service and their families,” Reed said.

The Capitol Hill display was organized by VoteVets, a progressive advocacy group focused on veterans issues. Paul Eaton, a retired Army major general who advises the group, said the display personalized the people and families affected by the holds because “these men and these women can't speak for themselves.”

Eaton said the holds are breaking up cohesion in the military.

“You know, when I was a battalion commander in my divisions…I would not permit guys to break up tank crews or rifle squads. That's how important teams are in the military. I mean, it's a very lethal business,” he said. “And here we have a senator who's a football coach, who knows better when it comes to team building, [to] get in and fracture teams from the highest level, all the way down to intermediate level, and it's drifting down, all the way down to the bottom level. So this man is really creating a national-security dilemma for us.”