Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies during a House subcommittee hearing on defense appropriations on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 23, 2023.
CNN  — 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin argued against criticisms from Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville on Tuesday and implored him to support the department’s officer nominations, which Tuberville has vowed to block until Austin reverses his stance on policies supporting service members seeking abortions.

“Not approving the recommendation for promotions actually creates a ripple effect through the force that makes us far less ready than we need to be,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

Tuberville has said he would hold up Defense Department nominations for flag and general officers until Austin “rescinds or suspends” the new policies, which largely focus on providing support for service members who have to travel out of state for care – including abortions and other non-covered reproductive health care like in vitro fertilization (IVF) and intrauterine insemination (IUI).

“The effects are cumulative, and it will effect families,” Austin added of the delay, “it will effect kids going to schools because they won’t be able to change their duty station, and so it’s a powerful effect and will impact on our readiness.”

Tuberville said Tuesday during the committee hearing that his hold is about “not forcing the taxpayers of this country to fund abortion.”

The Pentagon has been authorized to provide abortions in limited circumstances for decades; the 1976 Hyde Amendment said that federal funds can be used to perform abortions in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother’s life is at risk. Tuberville acknowledged that the “military has performed abortions for years,” but that he doesn’t “recall one military person ever complaining that we weren’t performing enough abortions.”

The new Pentagon policies were released in response to a Supreme Court ruling in June which removed the federal right to an abortion. In the wake of the decision, around a dozen states enacted so-called “trigger laws” which severely restricted abortion access. Many of those states – including Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana — have substantial military populations.

“[O]ne in five of our troops are women,” Austin told Tuberville. “And they don’t get a chance to choose where they’re stationed, so almost 80,000 of our women are stationed in places where they don’t have access to non-covered reproductive healthcare. And I heard from our troops, I heard from our senior leaders, I heard from our chiefs and also our secretaries and this policy is based on a strong legal ground.”

“I really implore you to reconsider and allow our nominations to move forward,” Austin said. “It will make a significant difference for our force.”

‘That is absolutely not true’

Austin’s exchange with Tuberville was far from the only tense moment in Tuesday’s hearing. Lawmakers also raised issue with the timeline of the Pentagon’s notification of activity in Syria last week, when an Iran-backed proxy group attacked a facility housing US personnel and ultimately killed on American contractor.

A suspected Iranian drone hit the coalition maintenance facility at 1:38 p.m. local time in Syria on March 23, which is 6:38 a.m. eastern time, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said last week.

Retaliatory strikes from the US were authorized by President Joe Biden later that day, and carried out on facilities associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at 7:40 p.m. eastern time.

Lawmakers have said that they were notified about the original attack and the US response that evening with congressional aides telling CNN the notification was communicated around the time of the retaliatory US strike.

Austin said Tuesday that the department notified Congress of both instances simultaneously because of the “short period of time” between the original attack and the US’ precision strike. Austin conceded to committee Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker that the Pentagon “should have notified you earlier,” and said they would do “everything within our power to make sure that we improve our performance.”

National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby also defended the administration’s notification to Congress, saying that time “was pretty compressed that day.”

“We took an attack, which killed an American citizen and wounded a half a dozen others, and retaliated against that attack on the very same day, so there was an awful lot going on in time and space, and a very compressed timeline,” Kirby said on Tuesday. “We did communicate to Congress, and I think I’ll just leave it at that.”

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, however, pushed Austin further on the notification timeline, alleging that Austin and his office purposefully delayed the notification because senators were voting on an amendment at the same time that pertained to Iran in Syria. The amendment, which was ultimately rejected by the Senate, would have halted the repeal of the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force until Biden could certify that Iran was no longer funding or arming groups in Iraq and Syria.

Austin said there was “no connection” between the notification and the vote on the amendment.

“The chairman and I were testifying that morning as well, so as soon as we came out of testimony we began working on crafting response options,” Austin told Cotton.

“Secretary Austin, I don’t believe you,” Cotton said. “I believe that your office specifically withheld notification of this deadly strike against Americans because the Rubio amendment, on which we voted midday, directly touched on exactly this scenario, not repealing these use of force resolutions if the president couldn’t certify that Iran was no longer attacking us in Iran and Syria that’s what I believe. Nothing you can say is going to change my belief about that.”

“I just want to say, senator, that that is absolutely not true,” Austin responded.