Defense Department leaders fielded questions and concerns from key senators over the military’s abortion access policy in a closed-door briefing Wednesday, but failed to produce any breakthrough in the stalemate over the rules, which has stalled hundreds of military promotions.
Democratic lawmakers left the event proclaiming confidence in the legality and need for the policy, which gives travel stipend and leave time for service members to travel across state lines for abortion services if they are stationed in a state where the procedure is limited or outlawed. Republican senators said they heard no relevant justifications, and vowed to continue their fight to overturn the rules.
“They didn’t prove that this was needed to help with recruiting or retention, and there’s zero evidence to support it,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. “I’m willing to listen, but we’re not going to support this direction of allowing abortion anytime for anyone.”
Since March, Tuberville has blocked more than 250 military nominations and promotions over his concerns with the abortion policy. He’s publicly defended the move, despite a growing clamor from Defense Department and military community leaders, who’ve called his tactics as damaging to military readiness and morale.
Wednesday’s briefing with the Senate Armed Services Committee was designed to calm some of the political tensions surrounding that fight, but initial responses from both Republicans and Democrats leaving the meeting showed little change in the stalemate.
Pentagon personnel, health affairs, and legal officials answered senators’ questions for about an hour, comparing the military policy to similar rules governing abortion access for Peace Corps members and federal prisoners.
In a statement after the meeting, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the information left him “even more convinced of the necessity and appropriateness of this policy, which is critical for the health of our military women, men, and their families.”
But when reporters asked him whether the arguments presented could change any Republican minds, Reed shrugged and walked away.
Tuberville said he has no immediate plans to drop his hold. Several GOP lawmakers are planning to attempt to address the issue in the annual defense authorization bill debate over the next few days, but it is unclear what legislative hurdles Democratic leaders could use to derail their plans.
Senate Armed Services ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said he thought the briefing proved “that this abortion policy was entered into for political reasons.” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, called the use of taxpayer funds to cover abortion costs “appalling.”
None of the Republicans leaving the briefing offered any potential path ahead for the stalled nominations, which Defense Department leaders have said are creating significant problems for the military planning and operations.
“This is a readiness issue,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters on Tuesday. “The hold on promotions … creates friction throughout the entire chain. It disadvantages families. I would imagine our adversaries would look at something like this and be pretty happy.”
Last week, House Republicans inserted a full repeal of the military abortion policy in their draft of the defense authorization bill. Tuberville said he would like to see a similar vote in the Senate, although he did not commit to dropping his holds in exchange for a vote.
Senate leaders can maneuver around the holds to approve the military nominations individually, but doing so would take months of non-stop work. In the past, many senior military nominations have been advanced by unanimous consent of all senators, while only a small fraction have required in-depth floor votes.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.