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Air Force secretary: Hold on confirmations is a 'disruption to military leadership'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington, where hundreds of promotions at the Pentagon have been on hold for months because of one man. Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama says he will keep blocking confirmations until the Pentagon changes its policy on reimbursing service members who travel for an abortion. Here's what Tuberville told Fox News this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOMMY TUBERVILLE: I told them, just take the policy back. Go back to the old policy. Bring it to a vote, and we'll vote on it. And whichever way it goes, I'm fine.

SHAPIRO: Leaders of the Army, Navy and Air Force wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post accusing the senator of putting national security at risk. And Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall is joining us live from the Pentagon to tell us where things stand. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

FRANK KENDALL: Thanks, Ari. It's good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Will you begin by explaining how, in your view, this freeze on confirmations and promotions harms national security?

KENDALL: It's having a huge impact. It's very disruptive, very dysfunctional. Every year, we move about a third of our people, including senior officers, and people change positions. They get promoted. People retire. There's - it's an annual event, basically. And right now we've got over a hundred general officers who are on hold who can't move into their new positions and people who have retired, leaving their positions vacant. So we've got a huge disruption to our leadership across both the Air Force and Space Force. And the other services are basically in the same situation.

SHAPIRO: And this has been going on for more than six months. The numbers, of course, are only likely to grow as it drags on. Let's talk about how to break through the impasse. The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, opposes Tuberville's hold. The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Roger Wicker, said he wants the situation resolved. And yet it's been going on since February. Is there a strategy to move past this?

KENDALL: Well, Senator Tuberville is responsible for this, and the very simple solution is for him to lift the holds. If he has individual officers he's concerned about, then he can put holds on them. But to hold everybody in a blanket hold like this is totally unprecedented. It's never been done before. It completely disrupts the military. It's holding all of our general officers hostage, essentially, because of a policy difference that he has. And as an individual senator, he should not be able to do that.

SHAPIRO: And yet, for more than six months, he has done it. So what's the breakthrough going to be?

KENDALL: Well, hopefully he'll come to understand how serious an impact he's having on the military. I know Senator Tuberville. I don't think he's an unpatriotic American, but I think he needs to appreciate how much harm he is doing not just to our officers and to our military institutions but to the families of these people as well. This is having a widespread impact. And I - as the secretary of the service, I see it every day. I work with these people all the time. So I can assure him that this is having a very negative impact, and he is not accomplishing his objective. And he needs to lift the holds.

SHAPIRO: Have you said that to him directly? Have you spoken to him? I know the defense secretary has.

KENDALL: I have not spoken to him recently, but I think he's very well aware of our views.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the effect it's having on families. We spoke with a military spouse last month named Tonya Murphy, whose husband is a Navy commander.

TONYA MURPHY: Holding our military members hostage in order to achieve a goal is not the right answer. That is not how you support our troops. Putting them in situations - in the current situation - where they do not have confirmed leadership is not how you show support to our troops. If you're going to support our troops, support our troops. Do not use them as pawns.

SHAPIRO: Secretary Kendall, what do you tell Air Force families who are trying to figure out where to enroll their kids in school, whether to sell their house for an expected move when no one knows how long this will go on?

KENDALL: Right now it's very hard to tell them what to expect because we don't know. We are coping with this. We are defending the country. We are doing our jobs. These are very professional people, and they're very dedicated to what they do. That's true across our organization. So they will continue to function, and we will have people in temporary positions, as we do now, across the department. And that allows us to function, but it doesn't allow us to move forward very well. And it certainly doesn't help families like the one you just heard from, you know, organize and plan their lives. Our military families make great sacrifices to be involved with the military. They move frequently. They don't have much choice about where they're going to go. They have to change schools for their children often. They have to go do all sorts of things when they make one of these moves. And the uncertainty they're dealing with, just as you heard, is very painful for them and totally unnecessary.

SHAPIRO: What about the policy that led to this standoff? The military will reimburse service members who travel to get an abortion. Tuberville says if that policy were to change, he would lift his hold on these confirmations. Is the Pentagon considering that at all?

KENDALL: The policy that is in place is basically the same as it had always been. We do not provide abortions that are optional to people. We do provide abortions in certain very limited circumstances. And in the past, before the Dobbs decision, people could get abortions locally and didn't have to travel. There's a big change in circumstances since Dobbs. And we are now forcing people to go live in states where they're very inconvenienced or it's very difficult for them to obtain reproductive health services. So...

SHAPIRO: So no intention of changing that.

KENDALL: All we're doing is reimbursing people for travel requirements...

SHAPIRO: All right.

KENDALL: ...That we're imposing on them because we're forcing them to live someplace.

SHAPIRO: Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall. Thank you very much.

KENDALL: Thank you - good to be with you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gabriel J. Sánchez
Gabriel J. Sánchez is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. Sánchez identifies stories, books guests, and produces what you hear on air. Sánchez also directs All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Sarah Handel
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.