The fate of the annual defense bill was in doubt Friday, after Republicans loaded the legislation with a series of conservative social policy restrictions limiting access to abortions, gender transition procedures and diversity training for the military personnel, alienating Democrats whose votes Republican leaders had seen as critical to passing the law.
Democrats vowed to oppose the bill in a vote scheduled for Friday morning, accusing Republican leaders of turning what started as a bipartisan bill into a hyperpoliticized salvo into a broader culture war to please. to a small right-wing faction of his party.
“The extremist MAGA Republicans have chosen to hijack the historically bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act to continue attacking reproductive freedom and shoving their right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California, the three top Democratic leaders, in a statement Thursday night in which they promised to vote against the bill.
Republican leaders expressed cautious optimism that they could rally their party behind the bill and pass it anyway, having added enough of the hardline changes demanded by the far-right to appease holdouts in their ranks and nearly offset opposition. universal of the democrats.
“I think we have enough votes to be a majority,” said Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who earlier this week had been predicting the bill’s possible demise if the GOP lost Democratic votes. “It will be close, but I think we will win.”
At stake is an $886 billion bill that would give a 5.2% raise to military personnel, include programs to counter aggressive moves by China and Russia and establish a special inspector general to oversee US aid to Ukraine.
The Republican-led House, under pressure from right-wing lawmakers, attached a provision to undo a Pentagon policy adopted after the Supreme Court struck down abortion rights to provide time off and travel reimbursement to service members who must travel out of state to obtain an abortion. .
The Republicans also added measures that prohibit the military from offering health coverage for gender transition surgeries, which currently require a waiver, and related hormone therapies. They included language that would eliminate all offices of diversity, equity and inclusion in the Pentagon, as well as the positions attached to them.
They adopted a measure that prohibits the educational arm of the Pentagon from buying any book that contains pornographic material or that “adopts a radical gender ideology.” And with the help of nine Democrats, they passed an amendment that would prohibit Defense Department schools from teaching that the United States or its founding documents are racist.
The measures have no chance of passing in the Democratic-led Senate, which plans to start considering its own version of the bill next week. Even if the Republicans can push their bill through the House, the yawning chasm between the houses is expected to spark a protracted fight that could threaten Congress’s ability to maintain its six-decade record of passing policy bills. defense every year.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, lamented the Republican approach to the legislation, saying it had botched a bill that had emerged from the panel on a nearly unanimous vote. In a statement Thursday night co-signed by all the top Democrats on the panel’s subcommittees, Smith said he “cannot and will not vote” for a bill that “has become an ode to bigotry and ignorance.” ”.
The changes represented a victory for far-right Republicans who have been pressing President Kevin McCarthy to avoid working with Democrats and instead cater to the party’s base on major laws. They spent weeks lobbying for reluctant Republican leaders to include the socially conservative amendments in the defense bill debate, eventually forcing the issue by threatening to block progress on the legislation until they had their way.
The success of those measures on the House floor creates momentum for those members to draw on in future budget debates, where the far right is seeking similar changes across government.
“It is central and critical to defense that we stop making the Department of Defense an experiment in social engineering wrapped up in a uniform,” Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican and one of the ultra-conservative ringleaders, told the floor Thursday.
Nearly all Republicans voted for a measure to restrict funding to allow service members to travel for abortions, which the House approved 221-213, and for another that denies transgender troops coverage for transition surgeries from gender and hormone therapy, which passed 222-211. A measure by Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., that would eliminate all Pentagon diversity offices and employees, passed by a narrower margin, 214-213.
The House of Representatives defeated a broader measure by Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, that would have barred the Pentagon from spending money on diversity training. That measure failed by a vote of 210 to 221.
The votes came amid a heated debate in which Republicans and Democrats feuded over issues of race, sex and gender. Rep. Eli Crane, Republican of Arizona, at one point made reference to “people of color” when defending his amendment to prevent diversity training from becoming a condition of getting or keeping Defense Department jobs. Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, a Democrat who is black, demanded that her comments be struck from the record, and Crane later said in a statement that she “misspoke.”
Later that night, Rep. Jill Tokuda, D-Hawaii, admonished her Republican colleagues for the tenor of the debate.
“From the backwards, racially insensitive comments being said on this floor, it sounds like DEI training would be good here in the halls of Congress,” he said.
The only point of bipartisan consensus on Thursday appeared to be widespread opposition to Republican efforts to reduce or eliminate military aid and arms shipments to Ukraine.
In a vote of 276 to 147, the House rejected a proposal to ban the Biden administration from sending cluster munitions to Ukraine, with two lawmakers present to vote. The Biden administration announced last week that it would send the weapons to kyiv, despite bipartisan concerns that the weapons posed too great a danger to civilians.
The amendment was proposed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, who also failed to kill a $300 million program to train and equip Ukrainian soldiers that has been part of the defense bill for nearly a decade. . The House rejected that effort by a vote of 341-89, along with a similar proposal by Gaetz to bar Congress from allocating more money for the Ukraine war effort, which was defeated 358-70.