Rep. Jen Kiggans, a minivan-driving mom and Navy veteran, narrowly won the election last year in her suburban Virginia district after a fiercely competitive race that centered on her opposition to abortion rights.
The issue remains a top priority for voters in her district, and appearing too extreme could leave her vulnerable again when she faces re-election in 2024. But Ms. Kiggans was one of dozens of Republicans from competitive districts who voted this week to support adding a series of deeply partisan restrictions to the annual defense policy bill, including one that would reverse a Pentagon policy aimed at preserving access to abortion services for military personnel, no matter where they are parked.
Democrats said the GOP provision was a springboard to institute more nationwide abortion bans, while Republicans argued it merely preserved a long-standing ban against using federal funds to pay for abortions.
The vote put lawmakers like Kiggans, a top target of Democrats whose seat is up for grabs in next year’s midterm elections, in a politically dangerous position. And he raised the question of whether, by scoring the short-term victory of keeping his party united behind the annual defense bill, which passed in a quasi-partisan vote on Friday, President Kevin McCarthy may have adopted a strategy that could ultimately cost his party a majority in the House.
Ms Kiggans and other similarly situated Republicans said they had no problem backing the abortion restriction or the bill itself, which emerged from the House laden with other conservative policy dictates, including one barring the program from military health care services provide transgender and other health services that limit diversity training for military personnel.
“Taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for elective surgery,” Kiggans, who was running as a moderate candidate focused on basic economic issues, said in an interview Friday explaining her vote. “This was not an abortion bill; it was about taxpayers paying for travel by the military for elective procedures.”
Still, the Democrats’ campaign arm in the House wasted no time in attacking Ms. Kiggans and other vulnerable Republicans who had backed the bill, with even some Republican lawmakers admitting that accepting it was a bad party image. He was trying to broaden his appeal.
“The reason we’re in the majority today is because of the swing districts, and the reason we’re going to lose the majority is because of the swing districts,” said Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina. “That has been lost up here. We are 10 days away from the August recess and what have we done for women after Roe? Zero.”
Ms. Mace, who represents a politically divided district, criticized the abortion amendment but ultimately voted in favor because she said it was technically consistent with Defense Department policy. But she said that she regretted having been forced to vote.
“I’m not happy about it,” he said. “I wish we didn’t have to do this right now.”
The Republican proposal would overturn a Defense Department policy implemented after the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion last year, setting off a race by some states to enact restrictions and bans on the procedure. The policy reimburses the travel costs of staff who must travel out of state to obtain an abortion or related services. The policy does not provide any money for abortions.
Democrats pointed to the vote as a prime example of Republicans taking votes that could ultimately cost them a majority in the House. Strategists from both parties have suggested that the Supreme Court’s abortion decision and subsequent efforts by Democrats to highlight Republican opposition to abortion rights weakened the GOP during last year’s election, costing them support. of independent and suburban voters.
“For the swing districts they represent, they should be doing the opposite, but they’re not,” said Courtney Rice, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Their decision to put party politics above pocket problems will cost them the House in 2024.”
Many vulnerable House Republicans said they took solace in the knowledge that amendments that focused on stoking battles over social issues would likely be removed from the bill by the Democratic-controlled Senate and would not be in a final version of the House bill. defense policy. .
“It wouldn’t be the way I would run the place, but at the end of the day, as long as we pass the NDAA like we have and keep out the really nasty poison pills, I think it will solve the problem,” he said. Rep. Tony Gonzales, Republican of Texas, referring to the defense bill by his full name’s initials. Mr. Gonzales, who voted for the abortion amendment and others that banned transgender health services and limited diversity training for military personnel, voted against the amendments that sought to cut funding for Ukraine.
Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, an outside organization allied with the congressional Republican Main Street Caucus, described the vote as a “calculated risk” for many members who gambled it would not hurt them politically.
“They made the decision that it was more important for them to get this bill out of the House than it was to fall on their swords on this one,” he said. “They would have preferred these amendments not to exist, but I think they can defend their vote because they are supporting the men and women of the armed forces.”
Still, it’s not the first time vulnerable Republicans have caved in to their party’s far right, even when it means taking votes that could turn out to be political liabilities down the road. McCarthy, who has worked overtime to appease the right whose support he needs to stay in power (most of whom represent safe GOP districts), has done comparatively little to protect more traditional Republicans whose seats risk holding. to accept difficult votes. .
In April, they voted in favor of McCarthy’s bill to raise the debt ceiling for one year in exchange for spending cuts and policy changes, even though it eliminated programs that helped veterans and the elderly.
Last month, they voted in favor of a resolution that would repeal a Biden administration rule that tightened federal regulations on stabilizing firearm braces that have been used in several mass shootings. House leaders brought the bill to the floor to help end a week-long blockade by far-right Republicans.
Still, the level of GOP support for the abortion amendment (only two Republicans, Rep. John Duarte of California and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voted against it) surprised Democrats.
“There are those across the hall who realize this is bad,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, a former Navy helicopter pilot and one of only two Democratic women in the House who have served in the military. . Ms. Sherrill said that she had heard from fellow Republicans that they told her privately: “’This is a very bad idea, this is a mistake.’ Well then why did all but two people vote for this really bad amendment?
Rep. Chrissie Houlahan, a Pennsylvania Democrat and a former Air Force officer, said she was “shocked by how few people voted against the amendment. She expected 15 Republicans to do the right thing.”
Some more mainstream Republicans tried to justify their votes by arguing that they were not voting against abortion or transgender healthcare, only against government funding for it.
“If you look at the polls, most Americans don’t think the federal government should pay for abortions,” said Rep. Stephanie Bice, an Oklahoma Republican and vice chair of the Main Street Caucus.
Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, said he supported the provision banning military coverage for gender transition surgeries and hormone therapy because he believed “if you want to do it, do it with your own money.”
“I don’t think it should be the taxpayer’s responsibility,” Bacon added.