Republicans skeptical as Democrats eye rules change to overcome Tuberville’s hold on military nominations

(CNN) - Senate Democrats are eyeing a new plan to try and work around GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s holds on military promotions, which would require a temporary change in rules that would allow them to approve hundreds of military nominations en bloc, a source familiar with these conversations told CNN on Thursday.

Many Republicans – including the ranking GOP member of the Senate Armed Services Committee – say they are opposed to the move, casting doubt on whether it’s a viable option as Tuberville’s holds enter their tenth month.

The idea has been circulating for months, but has picked up momentum in recent weeks as it has become increasingly clear that Tuberville will not relent.

The proposal could go to the Senate Rules Committee as soon as next week, the source told CNN. The move would also need Republican support on the floor because Democrats want to do this at a 60- or 67-vote threshold to ensure that it would be bipartisan and to guard against a Republican majority in the future using a similar process to circumvent one at a time up-or-down votes on nominees moving through the Senate. The block of nominees wouldn’t include some higher-level military promotions, which senators would still want to confirm one at a time.

Sen. Roger Wicker, Armed Services’ ranking Republican member, told CNN he hasn’t been part of the conversations about a rules change. Pressed on if he’d be open to it, he said, “No.”

Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, also told CNN, “No,” when asked if he would entertain a potential rules change to more quickly advance hundreds of military nominations.

“You have to be careful when you start changing rules because they have ramifications beyond the immediate incident,” Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, told CNN.

Sources urged caution as it is still possible that Democrats do not move forward with the change, but it represents a real option as Tuberville has stood in the way of nominations for months. The move was first reported by Punchbowl News.

Even Republicans who often cross party lines to work with Democrats and have criticized Tuberville’s holds publicly were not ready to back the Democrats’ idea.

“I am really hesitant about changing the rules, but we’ve got to address the stalemate, so I don’t know,” said Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican from Alaska.

GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said he’d prefer if Tuberville and the administration could “reach some kind of compromise as opposed to changing the rules.”

“I will take a look at it,” he said.

While Democrats leading the effort, including Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, say they are continuing to talk with GOP colleagues about the path forward, the effort faces some significant hurdles including a potential backlash from the anti-abortion community that could see any effort to skirt Tuberville’s holds as an afront to the GOP’s orthodoxy on a core issue.

Since February, Tuberville has been holding up military promotions because of a Department of Defense policy that reimburses travel costs for members of the military who have to leave the state they are stationed in to get reproductive care in another state. The department enacted the policy after the reversal of Roe v. Wade last year, overturning the constitutional right to an abortion and leaving the issue to individual states.

Tuberville vowed the threat of a rule would not pressure him to back off and while he didn’t know if outside groups might mobilize against senators who voted with Democrats to allow the rules change, he said he did expect there would be backlash.

“I’m not gonna back off because they say they are gonna change the rules,” he said. “Then, they gotta get the votes. Then they gotta get a bunch of Republican votes. That’d be mass suicide.”

Tuberville said abortion is the party’s “number one stance”

“If it’s not number one, it’s pretty close,” he said. “If you get Republicans voting for abortion, then I don’t know what would happen.”

The floated rules change could come before the Senate Rules Committee as soon as next week. But, the measure would need to get at least nine Republican votes on the Senate floor in order to pass.

“If they can work something out with Sen. Tuberville, I am all ears, but I wouldn’t support changing the rules. Once we do it for this, then it’s ‘We’ll change it for this and we’ll change it for this,’” GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said. “Pretty soon my hope is Republicans will have a majority in this chamber, and I will just say once you bulldoze these rules and make it easier for the majority to do so, the next majority is going to want that same advantage.”

For months, senators on the Armed Services Committee have been trying to find a way forward that could get around Tuberville’s holds. Democrats have argued that it is up to Republican leadership to pressure Tuberville to back off. But despite some brief conversations with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Tuberville has made clear he won’t give up his holds unless the Department of Defense rescinds its policy or the Senate holds a vote to uphold it at a 60-vote threshold, something that would never pass because of GOP opposition.

Republicans are largely opposed to the policy and have tried to walk a fine line on the issue of abortion even as they have called on Tuberville to end his holds. In September, Wicker sent a letter to Austin asking him to clearly articulate how many servicewomen had actually used the reimbursement policy, writing, “I received information that the total number of women who have been granted administrative absence and reimbursed travel pursuant to this policy is approximately 12.”

Tuberville’s hold cannot ultimately stop military promotions from being approved, but moving through hundreds of them on the floor with an up-or-down vote at this point would take months. Typically, the promotions would be approved by a unanimous consent agreement or with a voice vote. Voting on them individually would consume the Senate floor and paralyze the body from being able to take up almost any other action, aides said.

At the end of September, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took up a trio of high-profile military nominations on the floor including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, after Republicans threatened to use a rarely deployed procedural tool to force the votes. It’s possible Republicans could threaten that again as well.

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