House narrowly passes defense bill, setting up showdown over social issues
By Karoun Demirjian
Republicans late last week rammed through the House a deeply partisan defense bill that would limit abortion access, transgender care and diversity training for military personnel, setting up a showdown with the Senate. The coming fight could imperil the crucial annual measure to provide a pay raise for troops, set defense policy to counter U.S. adversaries and sustain Pentagon programs at a time of rising threats.
The House passed the measure on a vote of 219-210 with nearly unanimous Republican support, a significant victory for the far-right faction that forced a reluctant Speaker Kevin McCarthy to open the bill to an array of social policy prescriptions by threatening to block it if they did not get their way. But the move left the fate of the measure deeply in doubt, advancing a bill that has little chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate and raising questions about whether a compromise can be reached that could be enacted into law this fall.
And the outcome suggested even more intense battles ahead on Capitol Hill to avert a government shutdown. McCarthy’s capitulation to the right, despite knowing it could cost him critical Democratic support for the must-pass bill, was a gamble that could become a playbook for the coming fight over federal spending, where hard-liners are pressing to impose similar socially conservative policies governmentwide.
Some Republicans, particularly those in competitive districts, could also pay a political price for embracing legislation that would restrict the rights of women and transgender people and downplay problems of racism in the military. Democrats were already attacking them for having done so, highlighting the measure as a prime example of their argument that the Republican Party is extreme and out of step with the values of mainstream voters.
Yet McCarthy defended the legislation, saying Republicans did “exactly what we had said we would do” by using the defense bill to try to force the administration to “stop using taxpayer money to do their own wokeism.”
“A military cannot defend themselves if you train them in woke,” he added.
Democrats denounced the bill, accusing Republican leaders of having turned what began as a bipartisan measure into a hyper-politicized salvo in a wider culture war to please a small, right-wing faction of their party.
“Extreme MAGA Republicans have hijacked a bipartisan bill that is essential to our national security and taken it over and weaponized it in order to jam their extreme right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the minority leader, told reporters on Friday.
They also warned that the changes would discourage women, transgender people and minorities from enlisting, worsening recruiting challenges with policies that Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said would “undermine our ability to meet the national security objectives of this country.”
The addition of partisan policy requirements is expected to drastically complicate the usually bipartisan process of negotiating a final defense bill in Congress. Senators are expected to vote this month on a competing version of the defense bill, setting up what promises to be a difficult set of talks as the two chambers hash out their differences. Congress has not failed to agree on and produce an annual defense bill in six decades.
On Friday, ultraconservative House Republicans warned they were in no mood to accept a compromise with the Senate.
“We are not going to relent, we are not going to back down, we’re not going to give up on the cause that is righteous,” Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, told reporters. He said his members were “going to use every single tool at our disposal” to defend the socially conservative changes to the bill, calling them “a huge victory.”
And in a signal that the far right would hold a loud voice in the negotiations, McCarthy said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia would be a member of his negotiating team with the Senate.
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 U.S. aid to Ukraine.
But nearly the entire House debate focused instead on dozens of conservative social policy dictates that Republicans insisted on including. Over near-unanimous Democratic opposition, Republicans attached a provision to undo a Pentagon policy that was put in place 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. Republicans argue the policy runs afoul of federal laws barring taxpayer dollars from being spent on abortions, even though the policy does not include paying for the procedure.
Republicans also added measures prohibiting 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 diversity, equity and inclusion offices at the Pentagon, as well as the positions attached to them, and preventing the Defense Department from using affirmative action policies in admissions decisions at the military service academies.
The House added language barring the Pentagon’s educational arm from buying any book that contains pornographic material or “espouses radical gender ideology.” And with the help of nine Democrats, Republicans won approval of a policy prohibiting Defense Department schools from teaching that the United States or its founding documents are racist.
Republicans also added language blocking the Pentagon and the military from carrying out President Joe Biden’s executive orders on climate change.
In the end, only four Republicans voted against the bill — all right-wing lawmakers who apparently believed it was still not conservative enough: Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado, Eli Crane of Arizona and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. Four center-leaning Democrats also broke with their party to vote in favor: Reps. Don Davis of North Carolina, Jared Golden of Maine, Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez of Washington and Gabe Vasquez of New Mexico.