ICYMI: On Senate Floor, Warren Calls for Confirmation of 221 Key Military Nominees, Blasts Republicans for Jeopardizing Military Readiness and National Security with Political Posturing

Floor Speech

Date: June 1, 2023
Location: Washington, D.C.

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Mr. President, I want to thank the Senator from Rhode Island for his leadership. He has worked hard to make sure the Senate Armed Services Committee works in a bipartisan manner to keep our country safe. His steadfast approach has rightfully earned him respect from our colleagues on both sides of the aisle. And I appreciate his being here tonight on this issue.

Mr. President, several weeks ago, I came down to the Senate floor to ask the Senator from Alabama to reconsider his unprecedented action of blocking hundreds of promotions earned by our men and women in uniform. He refused. So I am here to ask again.

As I said, the last time I spoke about this, most people are aware that the Senate votes on nominees appointed by the President to occupy top roles in government: Cabinet Secretaries, judges, ambassadors.

Less well known is the fact that the Senate must also vote to approve thousands of military promotions each year. If a colonel has done really well on the job, and their services promotion board decides that they are ready to be a brigadier general, the Senate must vote to approve this promotion before it can go through. Typically, this vote is a formality. These promotions are processed in big batches, rather than one at a time and they nearly always happen without taking a recorded vote.

But right now, the Senator from Alabama all by himself, is blocking every single senior military nomination and promotion from moving forward. This means that one Senator is personally: Standing in the way of the promotions for 221 of our top level military leaders, Holding up pay raises for 221 men and women in uniform, Blocking 221 senior military leaders from taking their posts, and Jeopardizing America's national security.

In April, I sent a letter to Defense Secretary Austin asking about the impact of holding up these military promotions. Now Secretary Austin didn't pull any punches. He said, "the longer that this hold persists, the greater the risk the US military runs in every theater, every domain, and every service." He went on to point out that these unprecedented and unnecessary holds are creating, "rising disquiet from our allies and partners at a moment when our competitors and adversaries are watching."

There is bipartisan opposition to the Senator from Alabama's actions. Thanks to Chairman Reed, seven former Defense Secretaries, including ones who served under President Trump and President George W. Bush, sent a letter stating that leaving senior positions "in doubt, at a time of enormous geopolitical uncertainty sends the wrong message to our adversaries and could weaken our deterrence."

The Senator from Alabama hurts active duty military. He also hurts their families. In this letter describing the consequences of the Senator from Alabama's hold, Secretary Austin noted that it places an "unconscionable" burden on families that are already making significant sacrifices.

There are mounting worries that the negative impact on military families is threatening our military's ability to retain leaders who have completed thorough months-long reviews to earn those promotions. At a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, the Secretary of the Air Force said "one of the things that motivates our people in terms of retention is how they feel that their families are being treated." He said that he also "knows" that these families do not want to be treated like the Senator from Alabama's political football.

The Senator from Alabama is punishing 221 dedicated men and women who serve in our military because he disagrees with one of the Pentagon's policy decisions. He is opposed to a Department of Defense policy established to help members of the military and their families access health care, specifically reproductive health care.

Now, I strongly support this particular policy, but it's no secret that I disagree with a lot of other policy positions at the Pentagon. And as I reminded the Senator from Alabama the last time we had this discussion on the Senate floor as Senators, we have many tools that we can use to shape and influence government policies without putting our national defense at risk. We can pass laws. We can conduct oversight. We can meet with administration officials. We can hold hearings.

From time to time Senators object to an individual nomination usually to express opposition either to the nominee or to ensure that the Senator gets answers from a federal agency. I've done this in the past, as have many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

That is not the approach the Senator from Alabama has taken. Instead, he is blocking every single top military leader from advancing indefinitely. The last time I came to the floor, he was holding up 184 nominees. Now, he has snared 221 top level servicemembers who are currently slated for advancement. He has stopped every one of them dead in their tracks.

The Senator from Alabama is single handedly holding up: 3 four-star commanders, 35 three-star commanders, Multiple Silver Star and Purple Heart recipients, The next Commander of our Fifth Fleet in the Middle East, The next Commander of the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific, The Navy's air and surface warfare commanders.

And as a preview of coming events, the Senator from Alabama has already promised to block the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Senator from Alabama has already held some of these nominees for as long as three months. That's three months that they won't have time in their next role. That's three months that they won't get a pay bump, and there's no retroactive pay here. That's three months that they don't get the experience and the responsibilities of their new duty stations. That's three months -- and there is no end in sight. How many blows to their military careers, and to their families, do these men and women have to suffer before some of them simply walk away? This isn't right.

The Senator from Alabama has not raised any objections to the process by which these men and women were vetted and nominated. Each of these nominees has undergone a thorough review, first by their military service, and then the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Months after that review, their nomination is sent to the White House for additional scrutiny and then to Congress to officially authorize the promotion. These are our military's best leaders. They have proven themselves to the highest degree. And as a reward for their service and their exemplary dedication, the Senator from Alabama holds them hostage with no concern for what it means to their careers, the servicemembers depending on them for leadership, or their families.

The Senator from Alabama's actions are not just the usual back and forth in Washington. His holds pose a grave threat to our national security and our military readiness. They actively hurt our ability to respond quickly to threats around the world. That is not my conclusion. That is the conclusion of the Secretary of Defense.

When I tried to move these nominations forward the last time, I said I was concerned about how the actions of the Senator from Alabama were undermining military readiness. The Senator responded that he knew that I had sent a letter to Secretary Austin to ask him about the impact of the holds on military readiness, but that the Secretary had not yet responded. The Senator said, the last time we were on the floor here together, that he would consider Secretary Austin's concerns. In fact, he said that he "can't wait to read it." But he would not budge in the meantime.

So I'm here this evening to place into the record, Secretary Austin's reply. In his letter, the Secretary makes his concerns clear. He explains how the actions of the Senator from Alabama pose a grave threat to national security by harming military readiness. The Secretary also explains how the Senator from Alabama harms military families. I sincerely hope that the unvarnished assessment of our Secretary of Defense will be enough to move the Senator from Alabama to lift his hold, and let these nominations go forward.

Here is Secretary Austin's letter in full, which I asked to have it placed in the record.

Chair: Without objection.

Senator Warren: Thank you. I am here today to ask my colleague from Alabama to let these promotions move forward, and to find other ways to continue advocating for the policy changes that he wants to see. I am hopeful that he will do the right thing and allow the servicemembers to carry out their responsibilities to our country.

In a moment, I'll be asking the Senate to confirm calendar number 204. This nominee is a native of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. If confirmed, he wouldn't be the Navy's next sub boss, making him the most senior operational Submariner in the Navy. The submarine force is integral to deterring our enemies and keeping America safe. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to executive session to consider Calendar Number 204 that the Senate vote on the nomination without intervening action or debate that if confirmed, the motion to reconsider, be considered made and laid upon the table with no intervening action or debate that any statements related to the nomination be printed in the record that the President be immediately notified of the Senate's action


Closing Remarks as Delivered:

Madam President, the Senator from Utah and the Senator from Alabama have repeatedly said that the Department of Defense is somehow violating the law. Let's pull the statute out and just take a look at it. I want to read the words into the record.

Under Part A: restriction on use of funds. Funds available to the Department of Defense may not be used to perform abortions, except where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term or in a case in which the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest, period. That's it.

It does not say that funds from the Department of Defense may not be used for travel. It does not say that people may not have time off. It does not say that people may be allowed to travel out of state. It has exactly one thing that it prohibits federal funds from being used, and that is -- may not be used to perform abortions.

Let me say again, as clearly as I know how. The Department of Defense's rule clearly states that the service member will pay for her own medical services. It will not be the case that the Department of Defense will pay for abortions. If the Senator from Utah wants to change that law, he certainly can introduce an amendment to do that. The same for the Senator from Alabama. But right now, the Department of Defense is following the law in the United States.

The Senator from Alabama's actions pose a grave threat to our national security and readiness. That is not just my view, it is the view of the Secretary of Defense and the former Secretaries of Defense, serving in both Democratic and Republican administrations. If the Senator from Alabama stays on this path, his actions will soon endanger the nomination of the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, an action we have never seen in the history of our nation.

We have 221 good people who have earned their promotions who are ready to go to their next duty stations and serve their nation. They are being treated with disrespect and this action is undermining our national defense. I urge the Senator from Alabama to release his holds immediately and allow these senior military officers to receive the promotions that they have earned.

Thank you Madam President. I yield the floor.