It should be a national embarrassment, worthy of widespread outrage, that a former football coach and junior senator from Alabama can hamstring military promotions for months without severe consequence.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says military readiness is being compromised. If Tuberville doesn’t end his blockade, we won’t have a chairman of the joint chiefs after General Mark Milley’s term expires on Oct. 1. “Milley’s going to have to work overtime then,” Tuberville told CNN, making it clear he wouldn’t be backing down.
Which begs the question: Where does GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stand on Tuberville’s hostage-taking? The longest serving Senate leader in history is known for his ability to control his side of the aisle. Why isn’t he putting an end to this nonsense?
The two most likely reasons are that he’s finally losing his iron grip over his caucus, or he has made a calculated decision to avoid stepping into the culture war that Tuberville’s hold represents, as the junior senator seeks to end what his anti-abortion allies call “abortion tourism.”
McConnell in his prime would have ended the Alabama senator’s siege in a millisecond. He told reporters in early May, four months ago, he didn’t support what Tuberville is doing.
In the old days, before he suffered multiple falls and other health episodes signaled his vulnerability, those few words would have been treated as a command handed down from the mountaintop.
“Maybe if he was physically strong, he would exert stronger control or try to,” says Ira Shapiro, a former Senate aide and author of the 2022 book, Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America, a critical look at McConnell’s iron-fisted rule as Senate leader. “It’s both a joke and a tragedy that someone with Tuberville’s lack of credentials can screw up so many nominations,” Shapiro told The Daily Beast.
With the Senate back in session this week and facing multiple challenges to fund the government, Tuberville’s blockade continues, and there are few available tools other than brass-knuckled leadership to stop him. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) could hold votes on the nearly 300 military leaders whose promotions Tuberville has stalled, but that would eat up valuable floor time and crowd out all other necessary business.
Besides, Schumer doesn’t want to get embroiled in Tuberville’s sideshow when the former college football coach, a legend in his own mind, is rightly McConnell’s problem to bring to heel.
It’s not like Tuberville has a cheering squad on Capitol Hill. Many Republican senators think he’s taken his stand too far. They object privately, but don’t want to tread on a senator’s ability to put a hold on nominations. They all do it and, to them, it’s a sacred right.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) blocked all of President Biden’s State Department nominees for months beginning in 2021, until Biden reimposed sanctions on the sale of gas from the Russian pipeline, Nord Stream 2.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) routinely holds up pieces of legislation that are not to his liking by refusing to give unanimous consent, which slows things down by forcing individual votes that consume valuable time. “It’s deplorable what Tuberville is doing, but he is unflinchingly exercising a prerogative that has long existed,” says Shapiro.
The Senate rules haven’t been changed since 1979. Former Republican leader Trent Lott (R-MS), in 2005, after he stepped down from the leadership, called for a complete revision “and he was no radical,” Shapiro says of the Mississippi senator.
Lott, at the time, argued that holds had morphed from a single individual into whole groups of nominees, bringing Senate business to a halt. (Lott lost his leadership role in 2002, following outrage over remarks he made at retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday. Lott said the country “wouldn’t have had all these problems” if Thurmond, running on a segregationist Dixiecrat platform, had won the presidency in 1948.)
“It’s political malpractice to govern year after year with fundamental problems that are impairing the Senate’s performance,” says Shapiro. “The leaders in the McConnell era haven’t been interested in confronting this.”
McConnell is an institutionalist, and yet, his inattention to the coach’s juvenile behavior is part deference to the power of a single senator and part consequence of his weakened hold on his caucus. His wish is no longer their command.
While he is likely to remain leader in the short term, the three Johns (Cornyn of Texas, Barrasso of Wyoming and Thune of South Dakota) are vying for the inevitable succession of GOP Senate leadership). All are loyal, none will make a move, but the fragility that McConnell telegraphed with two on-camera freezes has changed the power dynamic.
The mighty have fallen. McConnell is no longer invincible, and it’s a rube like Tuberville that has driven that point home.
It’s hard to see what McConnell gains by letting Tuberville go on. If it’s merely to score points with culture warriors, that only underscores McConnell’s weakness in confronting an increasingly dangerous situation—one that he should have dismissed with a few well-chosen words months ago.