Defense bill’s fate teeters after GOP takes on social issues

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) enters a vote surrounded by reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 12, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) enters a vote surrounded by reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 12, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — The fate of the annual defense bill was uncertain on Friday, after Republicans loaded the legislation with a series of conservative social policy restrictions limiting access to abortions, gender transition procedures and the diversity training for military personnel, alienating Democrats whom GOP leaders had seen crucial to passing the legislation.

Democrats have pledged to oppose the bill in a vote scheduled for Friday morning, accusing GOP leaders of turning what started out as a bipartisan bill into a hyper-politicized salvo in a war broader culture to appeal to a small right-wing faction of their party.

“Maga’s extreme Republicans have chosen to hijack the historically bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act to continue to attack reproductive freedom and ram their right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people,” Reps. Hakeem said. Jeffries of New York, Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts. and Pete Aguilar of California, the three top Democratic leaders, said in a statement late Thursday in which they pledged to vote against the bill.

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Republican leaders expressed cautious optimism that they could unite their party behind the bill and pass it regardless, after adding enough sweeping changes demanded by the far right to appease holdouts in their ranks. and offset near-universal opposition from Democrats.

“I think we have enough votes to be the majority,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who earlier this week predicted the bill’s potential demise if the GOP loses Democratic votes. “It will be tight, but I think we will win.”

At stake is an $886 billion bill that would grant 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 the American aid to Ukraine.

The Republican-led House, pushed by right-wing lawmakers, has attached a provision seeking to overturn a Pentagon policy adopted after the Supreme Court struck down abortion rights to grant military leave and travel reimbursement who have to go out of state to get an abortion. .

Republicans also added measures barring 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 Pentagon Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion offices, and the positions attached to them.

They passed a measure prohibiting the Pentagon’s educational arm from buying any book that contains pornographic material or “espousing a radical gender ideology.” And with the help of nine Democrats, they approved an amendment that would ban Department of Defense schools from teaching that the United States or its founding documents are racist.

The measures have no chance of passing the Democratic-led Senate, which plans to start considering its own version of the bill next week. Even if Republicans can push their bill through the House, the deep chasm between the chambers is set to trigger a protracted fight that could threaten Congress’s ability to maintain its six-decade track record of passing bills. on defense policy every year.

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, lamented the Republican approach to the legislation, saying it ruined a bill that emerged from the panel in a near-unanimous vote . In a Thursday night statement 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 ignoring”.

The changes represented a victory for far-right Republicans who have pressured Chairman Kevin McCarthy to avoid working with Democrats and instead address the party base on major bills. They spent weeks campaigning for reluctant GOP leaders to include the socially conservative amendments in debate on the defense bill, ultimately forcing the issue by threatening to block progress on the legislation until they get what they want.

The success of these measures in the House creates momentum these members can build on in future budget debates, where the hard right seeks similar changes in government.

“It is critical and fundamental to defense that we stop making the Department of Defense an experiment in social engineering wrapped in a uniform,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, one of the ultraconservative frontrunners, said Thursday.

Nearly all Republicans voted for a measure to restrict funding to allow service members to travel for abortions, which the House passed 221-213, and for another denying transgender troops coverage for surgeries. gender transition and hormone therapy, which adopted 222-211. A move by Rep. Ralph Norman, R.S.C., that would eliminate all Pentagon diversity offices and employees, overwhelmed by a narrower margin, 214-213.

The House rejected a broader measure by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., that would have banned the Pentagon from spending money on diversity training. This measure failed on a vote of 210-221.

The votes came amid a heated debate in which Republicans and Democrats feuded over issues of race, sex and gender. Rep. Eli Crane, R-Arizona, at one point referred to “people of color” while defending his amendment to prevent diversity training from becoming a requirement for getting or keeping Department of Health jobs. Defense. Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, a black Democrat, demanded that his comments be stricken from the record, and Crane later said in a statement that he “misspoke.”

Later that evening, Rep. Jill Tokuda, D-Hawaii, chastised her GOP colleagues for the tenor of the debate.

“From the back, racially insensitive comments uttered on this floor, it looks like DEI training would be good here in the halls of Congress,” she said.

The only point of bipartisan consensus on Thursday, it seems, was widespread opposition to Republican efforts to reduce or eliminate military assistance 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 voting lawmakers present. 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, R-Ga., who also failed in her effort to scrap a $300 million program to train and equip Ukrainian soldiers that is part of the defense for nearly a decade. The House rejected that effort by a vote of 341 to 89, alongside a similar proposal by Gaetz to ban Congress from spending more money on Ukraine’s war effort, which was defeated 358 votes. against 70.

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