Senate Democrats are trying a novel strategy to break Senator Tommy Tuberville’s blockade of senior military promotions, as pressure builds among his fellow Republicans and Defense Department officials to end his monthslong hold in protest of the Pentagon’s abortion access policies.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said on Wednesday that he would seek to change the chamber’s rules to allow confirmation of almost all military nominees as a bloc. A vote could take place as soon as next week.
That would restore what had been routine practice in the Senate before Mr. Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, in February held up a package of officer promotions over a Pentagon policy offering time off and travel reimbursement to service members seeking abortions or fertility care.
While it is not clear that Mr. Schumer will have the support for his maneuver, he announced he would attempt it amid mounting frustration among Republicans and at the Defense Department about Mr. Tuberville’s nine-month blockade.
Anger inside the Pentagon about the hold has only intensified this week after Gen. Eric M. Smith, the newly confirmed Marine Corps commander, had an apparent heart attack. Some legislators and military officials have suggested General Smith’s collapse was because of his added workload as Mr. Tuberville’s tactics have blocked the confirmation of his deputy.
“What happened with the Marine commandant just showed many people how dangerous what Tuberville is doing is,” Mr. Schumer said.
(Mr. Tuberville said this week that he would not object to confirming Lt. Gen. Christopher J. Mahoney as the next assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, given Mr. Smith’s illness. The Senate was expected to vote on Mr. Mahoney’s nomination later Thursday.)
In a clear sign that pressure is building, a handful of Republicans took to the Senate floor on Wednesday night to excoriate Mr. Tuberville for his tactics, which have held up more than 350 senior military positions. They attempted to call up scores of pending promotions for military officers one by one, insisting he quit blocking them — which he repeatedly refused to do.
“No matter whether you believe it or not, Senator Tuberville, this is doing great damage to our military,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, in one such floor speech on Wednesday night. “If this gets to be normal, God help the military, because every one of us could find some reason to object to policy.”
The policy Mr. Tuberville is targeting, announced in February, allows service members to take leave and be reimbursed for transportation expenses if they must travel to obtain an abortion or certain fertility treatments because such procedures are not available where they are based. It came in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last year overturning Roe v. Wade, which prompted many states to move to ban or severely restrict the procedure.
The spectacle on the floor marked the breakdown of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations in which Republicans publicly defending Mr. Tuberville’s actions and blaming Democrats and the Pentagon for failing to accommodate him have privately pleaded with the Alabama senator to relent.
Mr. Tuberville’s refusal to do so could prod some GOP senators to join with Democrats to override their protest.
“The dam is starting to break,” said Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, who has led fruitless behind-the-scenes talks with Mr. Tuberville and is a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. “All attempts at compromise aren’t making progress, and the readiness issues are very real.”
No Republican has signed on yet to change Senate rules, an idea spearheaded by Senators Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona independent. It would allow all candidates to become generals and admirals, except for Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders, to be confirmed together.
Since Mr. Tuberville commenced his holds, the Senate has confirmed five senior officers to serve as Joint Chiefs, including Adm. Lisa Franchetti as next chief of naval operations and Gen. David W. Allvin as the next chief of staff of the Air Force, both of whom won near-unanimous confirmation on Thursday.
But to bring up and pass each promotion separately would consume massive amounts of time on the Senate floor, crowding out legislative business and confirmations for the rest of the federal government.
The rule change would need 60 votes to pass, and several Republicans are staunchly opposed.
“I’m not for a rule change, because I think we see around here that once a precedent is set with a rule change, then it’s a slippery slope to other changes, which I think threatens the institution,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.
Over the last decade, through a series of partisan, tit-for-tat rule changes, the Senate dismantled rules requiring 60 votes to confirm executive and judicial branch nominees, who are now approved by simple majority.
“What goes around comes around, and you know,” said Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, noting he was wary about a rule change. “The other side loves it when they’re doing it, but doesn’t love it when it’s done to them.”
But from their private conversations, some Democrats argue that Republicans can be persuaded to join them in the move. Nine GOP senators would be needed to join the chamber’s 49 Democrats and two independents to back the procedural end-run around Mr. Tuberville.
“A number of them want to jump together,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who helped draft the rule change proposal, adding: “Until there is either a public commitment or a vote from every one of those nine, we’ re still counting.”
On Wednesday night, Mr. Tuberville shot down 61 separate requests to let nominees be confirmed.
“I will keep my hold in place until the Pentagon follows the law or the Democrats change the law,” he declared.
Despite their palpable frustration, none of the five Republicans challenging Mr. Tuberville on Wednesday night pledged to sign onto the rule change.
“I’m hoping we can find an alternative to that, but something needs to give here,” Mr. Graham said.
Still, Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, said he had not ruled it out, and other Republicans refrained from doing so as well.
“I don’t like Mr. Tuberville’s technique of making his point, and I think it’s getting to a breaking point, quite frankly,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia. “So we’ll see if the resolution comes up.”
Helen Cooper contributed reporting.