10 min read

How can one senator hold up 250 military promotions?

Senate leaders could stop Tommy Tuberville’s blockade if they wanted to. It’s all about who wants to use their power.
How can one senator hold up 250 military promotions?
(Sen. Tommy Tuberville / Twitter)

Good morning! It’s Monday, July 17, 2023. The 2024 elections are 477 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Because they are technically presidential nominations, all military officers ranked O-4 and above — majors, colonels, and generals in the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Space Force, and commanders, captains, and admirals in the Navy and Coast Guard — must be confirmed by the Senate before their promotions can take effect.

This is normally treated as a formality, one of the easiest and most bipartisan tasks the Senate has to handle. According to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the chamber churns through upwards of 50,000 military nominations each year.

Enter Tommy Tuberville. Since February, the Auburn football coach turned Alabama senator has been singlehandedly holding up all Defense Department promotions for “general and flag officer” positions. That group is made up of anyone being promoted to rank O-7 and above, including all prospective one-star, two-star, three-star, and four-star generals and admirals.

Tuberville is blocking these nominees in protest of the Pentagon’s new policy — announced in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade — to reimburse service members who have to travel to obtain abortions because they are based in states where the procedure is illegal.

The Alabama Republican has said he will not back down until the Pentagon ends the policy or Congress votes to codify it. His blockade has recently grown to include the nominee for commandant of the Marine Corps, which has left the Marines without a permanent leader for the first time in 164 years.

Other senior military positions are also set to see turnover in the coming months: the Army’s chief of staff and the Navy’s chief of naval operations are both set to step down in August, while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley’s last day is pegged for October 1. If Tuberville’s holds are still going by then, it could mean the highest-ranking officer position in the entire Armed Forces will sit vacant — as will the top positions in three out of the six military branches.

President Biden spent the last week skewering Tuberville (his “new favorite foil,” per Politico) for the blockade, calling the stance “ridiculous” and accusing the senator of “jeopardizing U.S. security” while denying officers the pay increases they would receive with the promotions.

But there has been less attention paid to the exact mechanics of how one senator has been able to actually block all 251 (and counting) military promotions — and whether Senate leaders have any recourse to stop him.

That’s exactly the kind of story I try to cover here at Wake Up To Politics, explaining how process and politics intersect to result in policy outcomes that can impact Americans’ everyday lives. As it happens, I received a reader question on this very topic the other day, which I’d like to use as a jumping-off point for this discussion...

David S. asks: “Why is Sen. Tuberville’s single veto holding up military promotions? I am guessing it is in committee, where the margins are slim.”

Tuberville’s blockade actually isn’t taking place at the committee level, as most of the military promotions he’s holding up have already advanced out of committee and are now languishing on the Senate floor. (In fact, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, he’s signed off on their advancement: last month, for example, when the Marine Corps commandant nominee was approved by the panel, Tuberville offered no objection.)

It also isn’t really about slim margins: nearly the entire Senate opposes Tuberville’s blockade, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and most of the chamber’s Republicans. If a hypothetical Senate vote were held on whether Tuberville should continue, it would probably come out to around 90-10 against the blockade (if not a wider margin).

So how can one member gum up the works of the Senate, against the wishes of 90 of his colleagues?

Well, the Senate is known as the “world’s greatest deliberative body” for a reason. Senators are required to jump through several hoops before confirming nominees or approving pieces of legislation; these hurdles can often require hours of debate, dragging out even the most mundane of matters.

To speed those processes up, the Senate will often vote to dispense with its own formalities and move forward quickly with a bill or nominee — but, according to the chamber’s rules, this can only happen if no senators object. If all 100 senators are on board, pretty much anything can be done in a speedy manner and any hurdle can be knocked down; if even one senator says “no,” the hurdles remain up.

This practice of agreeing to do something without objection is known as securing “unanimous consent.” The Senate effectively runs on unanimous consent, or UC, agreements: it’s how senators approve most bills and nominations, and it’s how the chamber is able to go through 50,000 military promotions a year in the first place.

The late Robert Byrd (D-WV), the longest-serving senator in U.S. history and a master of the Senate rules, once estimated that “98% of the business of the Senate is called up by unanimous consent.”

When one senator signals their intention to deny a bill or nomination unanimous consent, they are said to be placing a “hold” on the matter. Holds are often communicated through the Senate’s “hotline” system, a special telephone and email system that connects rank-and-file senators to the chamber’s majority and minority leaders.

When the leaders want to put something up for unanimous consent, they let Senate offices know through the hotline. If the leaders don’t hear back about any objections, they know they are good to go. If a senator does plan to object, however, their office will notify the leaders; usually, out of deference to their colleagues, the matter won’t be brought up on the Senate floor at all until the hold is lifted.

Sometimes, to bring political attention to a particular hold, a senator from the majority party will go to the floor to ask for unanimous consent on something, knowing full well that the senator with a hold will respond with an objection, bringing the process to a halt. This procedural Kabuki dance has played out several times during Tuberville’s blockade, forcing the Alabama senator to object to military promotions for all of C-SPAN’s viewership to see.

But it’s important to note that, even though much of the Senate runs on unanimous consent, it is far from the only way to get something done.

In fact, although UC agreements have become the expected mode of operation in the Senate, according to the rules, they are not the Senate’s default process, they are a departure from it.

Here is a simplified version of the true default process, which is how a military nominee lacking unanimous consent would advance through the Senate:

  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) would ask for unanimous consent for a motion to proceed to a nomination. Tuberville would object. The leader would then call for a vote on the motion, which would require 51 “yeas.”
  • Schumer would file “cloture” on the nomination, which calls for debate on the matter to be cut off. The cloture motion would take two days to “ripen”; once it does, the motion would need 51 “yeas” to be approved. Cloture has now been invoked.
  • The Senate can then take up to two hours of post-cloture debate time for final consideration of the nomination. Once this time has expired (assuming senators want to use it all), the Senate advances to a final vote. If there is unanimous consent, the Senate can approve the nomination by voice vote; otherwise, a formal roll call vote must be held. If the nominee receives 51 “yeas,” they are confirmed.  

Yes, each step of this process moves a lot faster with unanimous consent, and it’s even easier if unanimous consent is simply used at the beginning to waive the process and confirm the nominees without consideration. But there is still a path forward without UC. Based on his support for the nominations in committee, it’s possible Tuberville wouldn’t even put up every possible hurdle to block the nominations along the way; even if he does, there is still a route for the military officers to be promoted.

This is all very time-consuming, of course. Senate Democrats are fond of noting that it would take them 668 hours to confirm all 251 nominees being held by up Tuberville — that comes out to 27 days working 24/7, or 84 days working eight hours a day. That is not, obviously, not practical.

But the military nominations don’t have to be confirmed together, even if that is the way it is typically done. Schumer has called Tuberville’s hold on senior positions like the Marine Corps commandant “reckless”; however, if he wanted, the majority leader could ensure the Marines have a new leader this week through the process I outlined above. That would not take 668 hours; it would only take around three. (Note also that cloture motions can “ripen” together; that means the two-day clock can run for several motions at once. The two-hour post-cloture clock, however, can only go one at a time, which would be the biggest source of delay if Schumer tried to confirm multiple military nominees.)

Why doesn’t Schumer do this, at least for the Marine Corps commandant? The main reason he has provided is that he doesn’t want to create a precedent, whereby any member can force the Senate to eat up precious floor time by initiating such an expansive hold on nominations.

Department-wide holds are becoming increasingly common in both parties, though, meaning this precedent will possibly have to be broken sometime. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for example, is doing the same thing right now as Tuberville for all health nominees; Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) has an ongoing hold on all nominees for the Department of Justice. (Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) also briefly initiated a Tuberville-style hold on all military promotions during the Trump era; her blockade lasted two weeks.)

For now, though, Schumer’s decision is an acknowledgment that time on the Senate floor is a zero-sum game, and three hours spent confirming a new Marine Crops commandant would be three hours in which the Senate isn’t confirming new judges, which is Schumer’s primary concern. After all, the Marine Corps has an acting commandant, but vacant judgeships are vacant; major judicial decisions can be impacted as a result.

To put a partisan lens on it, Schumer’s decision not to at least confirm a Marine Corps commandant also suggests a raw calculation that Tuberville’s blockade helps Democrats and hurts Republicans, which means Schumer is gambling he wouldn’t benefit politically from lifting a finger to prevent it (even if the country might).

None of this makes Tuberville’s blockade Schumer’s fault. The Alabama senator is the one making it difficult to give promotions to rank-and-file military officers; obviously, it would not be practical for the Senate to spend 600+ hours confirming them all, as much as they may deserve promotions. But Schumer has options here, too, and he is also making a choice, opting not to spend three hours of his Senate’s time to at least make some headway on reversing Tuberville’s blockade and ensure, for example, the Marine Corps has a permanent leader.

I think this gotten lost a bit in the Tuberville coverage, some of which could be read to suggest that absolutely no military nominees can be confirmed as a result of the Alabama senator. That is not true. Tuberville can slow down nominations from advancing, but he cannot singlehandedly deny their confirmation. If they wanted to, Senate leaders could take advantage of this fact to at least approve the highest-ranking promotions.

The misconception that Tuberville’s hold is insurmountable — that is a question of stopping something, versus slowing it down — has led to sentiments like this one, which received thousands of likes on Twitter:

But, as all of you now know, even if they can slow things down, one senator cannot unilaterally block a military confirmation any more than 23 senators could have stopped the Iraq war. At the end of the day, if the needed majority of senators want either task accomplished (and are willing to devote a few hours to it), they will always get their way. (For what it’s worth, when the Senate was considering the resolution to approve the Iraq war in 2002, the 23 dissenting senators could have availed themselves of the same option Tuberville has, which would have slowed down — but not stopped — the measure. They simply chose not to, allowing the resolution to advance through several hurdles by unanimous consent. It was only on the final 77-23 vote on passage that they recorded their objections.)

Just one senator can wield tremendous power to slow things down and make life difficult for their colleagues. Sometimes they choose to do so (like Tuberville); sometimes they do not (like the Iraq War dissenters).

In either event, though, one senator does not have the power to stop anything forever. The Power of the Majority will always trump the Power of One. It just depends on who is willing to use the powers available to them.

More news to know.

DeSantis campaign sheds staff amid cash crunch / Politico

Rep. Pramila Jayapal walks back her comments calling Israel a “racist state” / NBC

RFK Jr. accused of making antisemitic, racist claims about COVID-19 but insists he was misunderstood / ABC

Trump and Allies Forge Plans to Increase Presidential Power in 2025 / NYT

The day ahead

President Biden and Vice President Harris have nothing on their public schedules.

First Lady Biden will host a ceremony to award the nation’s highest honor for museums and libraries — the National Medal for Museum and Library Services — to eight institutions from across the country. She will also partner with Major League Soccer to host a youth soccer clinic on the South Lawn of the White House.

The Senate is off until tomorrow.

The House will vote on four pieces of legislation:

  • The Providing Accountability Through Transparency Act, a Senate-passed bill that would require federal agencies to post plain-language summaries — no longer than 100 words — of all proposed regulations at regulations.gov.
  • The Animal Drug and Animal Generic Drug User Fee Amendments, which would reauthorize the FDA’s ability to collect fees from the pharmaceutical industry to cover the costs of reviewing the safety of veterinary drugs.
  • The Global Investment in American Jobs Act, which would require an interagency review of “the global competitiveness of the United States in attracting foreign direct investment from responsible private-sector entities based in trusted countries and addressing foreign trade barriers that firms in advanced technology sectors face in the global digital economy.”
  • The Securing Semiconductor Supply Chains Act, which would require the Commerce Department to “solicit comments from state economic development organizations regarding federal efforts to increase foreign direct investment” in semiconductor manufacturing.

Thanks for reading.

I get up each morning to write Wake Up To Politics because I’m committed to offering an independent and reliable news source that helps you navigate our political system and understand what’s going on in government.

The newsletter is completely free and ad-free — but if you appreciate the work that goes into it, here’s how you can help:

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.‌‌‌‌

Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.‌‌‌‌

— Gabe