GOP Uses Must-Pass Defense Bill to Thwack at Abortion, Transgender Troops as Legislation Passes House

Visitors walk outside of the U.S. Capitol
Visitors walk outside of the U.S. Capitol, Thursday, July 13, 2023, in Washington. The Washington temperature is expected to reach the upper 90's today. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

The Pentagon would not be able to provide gender-affirmation care to transgender troops or travel funds to service members who need abortions under the sweeping annual defense policy bill passed by the House on Friday.

The bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, encompasses a range of routine military issues, including endorsing a 5.2% pay raise for service members next year -- the largest pay increase in two decades.

But the traditionally bipartisan bill became a battleground for culture war issues this year after far-right lawmakers threatened to derail what's considered must-pass legislation if their amendments weren't voted on. House Republican leadership acquiesced, and the bans on transgender health care and coverage of abortion-related expenses -- along with a host of conservative priorities -- were added to the NDAA during this week's debate on the House floor.

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    But adding those amendments turned Democrats against what is typically a bipartisan bill. While the NDAA advanced out of the House Armed Services Committee last month in a bipartisan vote, the bill passed the House on Friday in a largely party-line, 219-210 vote. Four Republicans voted against the bill, and four Democrats supported it.

    "What was once an example of compromise and functioning government has become an ode to bigotry and ignorance. Attacks on reproductive rights, access to basic health care, and efforts to address our country's history of racism and marginalization of huge swaths of our country will worsen our recruitment and retention crisis, make our military less capable, and do grievous harm to our national defense and national security," Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, along with the top Democrats on each of the committee's subpanels, said in a joint statement Thursday night.

    But the far-right House Freedom Caucus, which was the driving force behind the amendment fight, hailed the bill as a conservative win.

    "A week ago, this bill to many of us looked untenable," Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., said at a news conference ahead of the vote. "We're here to tell you today that this is a huge victory."

    Republicans had already successfully added several "anti-woke" amendments to the bill during the Armed Services Committee's consideration of the legislation last month, including measures to ban Pentagon funding for drag shows and any training related to critical race theory.

    In a statement earlier this week on the committee-passed NDAA, the White House took issue with the bill's efforts to roll back "initiatives to promote a cohesive and inclusive force" but still said it was "grateful for the strong, bipartisan work of the House Armed Services Committee on behalf of America's national defense."

    But members of the Freedom Caucus and other staunch conservatives wanted to go further than the committee did to stamp out what they argue are distractions from the military's core mission of preparing to fight wars.

    The abortion amendment would reverse a Pentagon policy implemented earlier this year that allows troops to take leave and be reimbursed for travel if they need the procedure, which is generally not performed by the military. The policy, which the Pentagon put in place after more than a dozen states banned abortion in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last year, has been at the center of a number of contentious battles in Congress this year, including an ongoing standoff in the Senate.

    Republicans argue the policy violates a law prohibiting Pentagon funding from being used to perform most abortions, while Democrats maintain it is necessary to support female service members who do not get to choose whether they are stationed in a state that bans abortion.

    Two Republicans -- Reps. John Duarte of California and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania -- voted with Democrats against the NDAA amendment, while one Democrat -- Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas -- voted with Republicans for it.

    Meanwhile, two separate amendments would bar service members and dependents who are transgender from getting surgery or taking hormones. Despite no reports of any detrimental effects on the military since transgender troops have been able to serve openly, Republicans have leaned into anti-LGBTQ+ messaging as part of their electoral strategy.

      In addition to the ban on health care for transgender troops, Republicans also passed an amendment to ban books with "pornographic material or ... radical gender ideology," which the measure does not define, from Defense Department school libraries.

      Republicans also targeted diversity efforts with an amendment to bar the military from having any form of "chief diversity officer." And despite the Supreme Court exempting military academies from its recent ruling against affirmative action, Republicans approved an amendment that would effectively ban affirmative action at the academies.

      Some anti-diversity efforts fell short. A GOP amendment to ban any training in the military on "diversity, equity and inclusion," which was not defined in the amendment, failed with nine Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

      Also voted down was a measure to block any more efforts to change the names of Defense Department property that honor members of the Civil War-era Confederacy. All but two of the nine Army bases that bore Confederate names have already been renamed, but the congressionally mandated commission that was tasked with coming up with renaming plans identified hundreds of streets, buildings, signs and other smaller pieces of property that honor the Confederacy that will be changed.

      Far-right lawmakers lost fully in one major effort: curtailing or entirely cutting off aid to Ukraine. The most sweeping amendment, which would have prohibited any security assistance for Ukraine, failed 70-358, and efforts to cut the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and block cluster bombs for the Ukrainians similarly failed along bipartisan lines.

      Despite promises from Republican leadership at the beginning of the year to have a more open amendment process on bills than in the past and leadership giving conservatives votes on their amendments, just about 370 of a record 1,558 proposed amendments were given votes this year -- a smaller percentage than in recent years. Left on the cutting-room floor were some of the out-of-left-field amendments, such as ones to end testing recruits for marijuana and to add bulletproof safe rooms to Defense Department schools.

      Also not granted votes were measures related to service member quality of life, including Democratic proposals to give the Pentagon more flexibility to shift funds to child care programs and to expand eligibility for the Basic Needs Allowance.

      While conservatives are declaring victory on the bill, the House-passed NDAA must now be reconciled with the version of the NDAA that will be passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate. The upper chamber is expected to start debate on its version of the legislation next week.

      House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., expressed confidence Friday that negotiations with the Senate will be "fine" despite the conservative amendments added to the House's version.

      "I'm thrilled we got the bill out of the House," he said. "Hopefully, the Senate can do the same thing, and we can start working on a conference report that can get bipartisan support."

      While the NDAA is typically bipartisan, it is not unprecedented for early versions to be partisan.

      In 2019, when Democrats controlled the House, they loaded the version that passed their chamber with amendments to entice support from progressives who typically oppose the NDAA after Republicans turned against the bill because they did not think it authorized enough funding. After negotiations with the Senate that year, most of the liberal provisions were dropped from the bill, and the final version that was signed into law was bipartisan.

      -- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

      Related: House Panel Approves Defense Bill with Highest Pay Raise in Decades After Culture War Brawl

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