Defense bill that targets abortion access, trans health, racial equity passes U.S. House
The U.S. House approved Friday an annual defense authorization bill loaded with GOP rollbacks of Pentagon policies on abortion and transgender health care, as well as efforts to boost racial equity.
Republican amendments targeting social policy issues turned a typically bipartisan measure preserving the nation’s military security into another front for the culture wars, similar to those that have gripped many state legislatures. The bill passed 219-210, with mostly GOP support.
Four Republicans and four Democrats crossed party lines to vote with the majority of the other party. Five members did not vote.
The four Republicans who voted against the bill are all members of the conference’s right wing: Andy Biggs and Eli Crane of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado and Thomas Massie of Kentucky.
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The Democrats who voted yes all hail from swing or Republican districts: Donald G. Davis of North Carolina, Jared Golden of Maine, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington and Gabe Vasquez of New Mexico.
Republicans approved dozens of contentious amendments, including to block funding to reimburse service members’ travel for an abortion. The bill would also disallow military health care professionals from performing transition-related health care for transgender service members, and eliminate Pentagon positions related to diversity, equity and inclusion.
In a triumphant Friday morning news conference, members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus said their successful amendments were part of a drive to remove the Biden administration’s insertion of social policy into the Defense Department.
“We’re talking about going from crazy to normal,” Scott Perry, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the group, said.
“To save America, conservatives need to hold the line,” Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert said. “We need to continue to push back against the Biden administration’s woke agenda. We saw many victories yesterday doing exactly that.”
But many Democrats took to the House floor to complain that Republicans’ focus on social issues weakened the bill’s military substance by hurting recruitment and troop cohesion. The amendments sent an unwelcome message to people of color, women and LGBTQ+ people serving in the military, they said.
“They are putting culture wars over national security,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat, said during debate Thursday on an abortion-related amendment.
The bill had seemed likely to attract overwhelming bipartisan support before Thursday, when Republicans successfully added amendments on abortion and more, prompting Democratic leaders to declare they would not support the package.
It is highly unlikely the bill will pass the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate with the divisive social policy measures attached.
The defense bill, which Congress has passed annually for more than six decades, sets policy and authorizes funding levels for the Defense Department.
The fiscal 2024 bill would authorize $886.3 billion for defense programs, including a 5.2% pay raise for service members and an increase to housing allowances, and make other national security policy updates that the House Armed Services Committee nearly unanimously approved on a bipartisan 58-1 vote last month.
Support across the aisle, including from the many lawmakers with military installations in their districts, has been a hallmark of the annual defense authorization bill.
In the previous three years, the legislation received votes from at least 295 House members. The last time it passed the House with only one party’s support was 2019, when all Republicans voted against it in a House controlled by Democrats.
President Joe Biden’s administration strongly supported the bill as it passed out of committee, according to a July 10 statement of administration policy from the White House.
After lawmakers added several noncontroversial amendments Wednesday and early Thursday, key Democrats, including Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith of Washington, said they were poised to support the bill, predicting that more than 300 colleagues of both parties would join them.
But Smith — who wound up voting against the defense measure — warned on Wednesday he might oppose it if Republicans attached some “extreme right-wing” amendments they were proposing.
Thursday, Smith said the base bill had demonstrated a commitment to national defense and to service members.
But “that bill no longer exists,” he said.
“What was once an example of compromise and functioning government has become an ode to bigotry and ignorance,” Smith said in a statement.
‘All the theatrics’
The House rejected other controversial amendments, including several meant to reduce military aid to Ukraine in that country’s war with Russia.
Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who chairs the powerful House Rules Committee, noted before debate on the most contentious amendments began Thursday that he opposed some of the amendments Democrats objected to, and predicted they would not pass, leaving “95% of the bill… exactly what came out of the House Armed Serviced Committee.”
He urged critics to focus on the national defense core of the bill.
“We’re gonna have all the theatrics and all the flailing of arms – that’s part of the process too,” Cole said. “But at the end of the day, almost all this bill is supported by the majority of both sides of the aisle.”
The House Freedom Caucus extracted major gains from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at the beginning of this Congress and said Friday they would continue to use that leverage after their success with the Pentagon bill.
Boebert and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, credited Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s ongoing blockade of Defense Department nominees over the Pentagon’s abortion policy for inspiring the House members.
“I do not believe we would have achieved the Republican unity in the House, but for the courage of Senator Tuberville,” Gaetz said.
DOD abortion policy
The House adopted, 221-213, an amendment from Texas Republican Ronny Jackson that would block funding for a Defense Department policy to reimburse service members for travel expenses related to seeking an abortion.
“This illegal, Biden-endorsed policy has no place in our military,” Jackson said. “Taxpayer money provided to DOD is intended to provide for our national defense and our national security, not to promote and support the Biden administration’s radical and immoral pro-abortion agenda.”
Jackson called the policy an effort to sidestep the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that removed the federal right to an abortion. The ruling allowed states to set their abortion policies, spurring many led by Republicans to enact severe restrictions on the procedure.
Since the Dobbs decision and subsequent state restrictions, active military members serving in states with strict abortion restrictions must travel to seek reproductive services. The Defense Department policy was meant to help address that.
Jackson’s amendment would make it more difficult for some service members to get an abortion, Texas Democrat Veronica Escobar said.
“My colleagues want to ensure that the enlisted women of the United States military and their family members who live in Republican states where abortion has been banned are forced to carry a pregnancy to term even in the case of rape and incest,” she said.
Two Republicans, Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick and California’s John Duarte, voted against the amendment. Henry Cuellar, an anti-abortion Democrat from Texas, voted in favor. Six members did not vote.
Trans health care
Nearly along party lines, the House also approved amendments from Republicans Matt Rosendale of Montana and Ralph Norman of South Carolina to block funding for health care for transgender service members.
Both made it clear that they thought transgender people should not serve in the military.
“The question that must be asked is whether having trans individuals makes the United States a more lethal force and whether it helps recruit the best and most effective talent for the United States military,” Rosendale said. “And the answer to that is a clear and resounding no.”
“If you don’t know if you’re a man or a woman, you shouldn’t be going to war,” Norman said.
Democrats objected to both.
“The ignorance contained in these comments is really breathtaking,” Smith said of Rosendale.
“No matter how capable, no matter how qualified you are, we’re going to make it impossible for you to serve, primarily because of the colossal ignorance that a lot of people have about what transgender means,” he said.
Trans people have served in the military “for years,” said Sara Jacobs, a California Democrat with a trans brother.
“It’s mind boggling that we would want to deter and discriminate against a group of people who have proven their patriotism and deep commitment to our country,” Jacobs said. “We’re facing steep military recruitment and retention challenges. This amendment will worsen this crisis by pushing transgender service members out of the military. And that’s because gender-affirming care is necessary and medically backed.”
Both votes were again nearly party line, with the exceptions of Duarte voting with Democrats and Cuellar with Republicans. Seven members didn’t vote on the Rosendale amendment and eight didn’t vote on the Norman amendment.
The House also adopted an amendment from Boebert that would prohibit the Department of Defense Education Activity, a school system for children of service members in the United States and 11 foreign countries, from keeping in its libraries pornography or books that “espouse radical gender ideology.”
All Republicans present voted in favor, as did Cuellar and Davis.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
Norman offered an amendment to eliminate any positions in the Pentagon or service branches that promote diversity, equity and inclusion, a trend in the private workforce to hire and retain employees of diverse racial, gender and sexual orientation backgrounds.
The measure was adopted 214-213. All Democrats present and Republicans Fitzpatrick, Don Bacon of Nebraska, Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Oregon and Michael R. Turner of Ohio voted against.
Texas Republican Chip Roy authored another amendment to ensure the Pentagon does not create any such position. That measure was adopted 217-212, with Chavez-DeRemer and Fitzpatrick joining all Democrats in voting no.
Roy also brought an amendment to ban Department of Defense Education Activity schools from teaching certain curricula on race in the U.S., including that founding documents were racist.
Nine Democrats — Cuellar, Davis, Jared Golden of Maine, Willy Nickel of North Carolina, Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, Gluesenkamp Perez and Kim Schrier of Washington and Jake Auchincloss and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts — joined all Republicans in favor of the amendment. Democrat Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania voted present.
The chamber rejected an amendment from Virginia Republican Bob Good to block any funding to implement the recommendations of a commission Congress created in 2020 to propose new names for military bases named after Confederate figures.
The amendment failed 177-253, with 41 Republicans crossing party lines to vote with every Democrat present.
“These monuments are supposed to reflect our values,” Smith said. “This is not a value we should be reflecting. And oh, by the way, this is why we still need diversity, equity and inclusion programs, to try to educate people on these very fundamental facts that they ought to know.”