Far-right House Republicans are pushing to use the annual bill setting the US military budget and policy as an opportunity to tussle with the Biden administration over abortion, race and transgender issues, endangering its endorsement and the decades-long bipartisan consensus in Congress backs the Pentagon.
Republican leaders scheduled votes starting Wednesday on the $886 billion bill, but as late as Tuesday night they still had to dissuade their ultraconservative colleagues from efforts to load it with politically charged provisions to combat what the GOP calls « wokeness » in the ‘army .
Those proposals — including rolling back a Pentagon policy that provides service members access to abortions and defunding the military’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs — would alienate moderate Republicans and Democrats whose votes would be needed to push the bill through the tightly divided House.
The situation has turned the annual defense policy bill into the latest test of President Kevin McCarthy’s leadership since the far right rioted over the debt ceiling deal he forged with President Biden, stalling the Room to ask for more influence on his agenda. Right-wing lawmakers have threatened to do it again if their priorities aren’t met, and this time, their tactics could snag what is widely seen as one of the few pieces of legislation to pass each year before Congress, which normally collects a wide support worldwide. the political spectrum.
This year’s bill would grant a 5.2 percent raise to military personnel, counter aggressive moves by China and Russia, and set up a special inspector general to oversee US aid to Ukraine. But in recent years the legislation has increasingly become a magnet for cultural strife, and with Republicans now in control of the House, right-wing members have attempted to harness it to fuel their socially conservative agenda.
At issue is a major part of the Republican Party’s attack on Biden and the Democrats, whom they accuse of trying to instill radically liberal policies in all areas of American life. The Pentagon has figured prominently in their narrative, because it allows Republicans to tie their grievances about cultural issues to national security and patriotism, effectively arguing that progressive policies are not only misguided but dangerous.
« I think it’s imperative for defense to stop turning the Department of Defense into a uniform-wrapped social engineering experiment, » Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, said in an interview.
Mr. Roy said he avoided ultimatums but would « expect » votes to roll back the Pentagon’s policies on abortion and diversity, signaling he otherwise would not have advocated for the bill to go to the floor.
Conservatives have also proposed several provisions against transgender troops, including one that would deny coverage for transitional services and another that would force them to use facilities that match their sex at birth.
Republicans have already inserted provisions into the bill that appear intended to fuel culture-warfare debates. During a drafting session last month on the House Armed Services Committee, GOP lawmakers added bans on drag shows on military bases and critical race theory instructions.
But party leaders fear Conservative calls for more social policy dictates could break the bipartisan coalition they have built around the bill, which has received nearly unanimous approval from the military panel.
“We had a wholesome and healthy debate, a series of debates,” Rep. Mike D. Rogers, chairman of the Armed Services Panel, said at a Rules Committee hearing on Tuesday, referring to last month’s drafting session. . « There have been several amendments that have been adopted to address this. »
Mr. McCarthy’s small majority means he can afford to lose no more than four Republicans on each vote, giving factions in his party enormous power to make demands. Last month, 11 far-right Republicans, including Mr. Roy, managed to block the House floor by denying a vote for a rule governing legislative debate, in protest against the debt ceiling agreement.
It wasn’t clear whether those lawmakers or others could do the same thing with the ground rules for the defense bill, which would prevent it from being considered.
« Vote for the rule and vote for the bill, » Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz said in an interview after promising conservative Republicans would force votes to « reverse course on gender ideology. » radical to DOD” Mr. Gaetz was one of the lawmakers who protested the debt ceiling deal by blocking other action on the floor.
Republicans are unlikely to get any assistance from Democrats in getting the defense bill on the floor if the measure meets conservative calls, and could lose the critical Democratic support needed to pass the legislation if Republicans vote as a block to roll back the policies. of the Pentagon on race, gender and abortion. Either way, party passage of the bill would be virtually unheard of on Capitol Hill, signaling the erosion of a rare pillar of bipartisanship in Congress.
Democrats argued that undoing diversity initiatives at the Pentagon would jeopardize the future of the military.
« A diverse force is critical, » Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said before the Rules Committee on Tuesday, pleading with lawmakers not to allow a vote on the proposal. “We have recruiting challenges. We can’t take large groups of people and exclude them from that process. It’s about national security. This is not a leftist political agenda. »
They also expressed mistrust that House Republican leaders would succeed in bringing conservatives to their knees.
« The Freedom Caucus seems to be telling them that ‘We can’t move forward if we can’t get our way on some of these contentious issues,' » Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Committee on Civil Rights, said in an interview. rules. on Tuesday. « And if history is any indicator, when the Freedom Caucus says ‘Jump,’ Kevin McCarthy responds by saying, ‘How high?' »
If Republicans can get the bill passed, mainstream Republicans could help defeat some of the conservative social policy proposals.
Representatives Don Bacon of Nebraska and Michael R. Turner of Ohio, both Republicans, last month declined to support a proposal to eliminate funding for the Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs.
« To say you’re going to eliminate diversity training completely, is nonsense, » Bacon said in an interview, recalling his diversity training in the Air Force. « You have to have some policies on diversity and racism and sexism. »
Conservative lawmakers may face similar hurdles in persuading moderate Republicans to roll back a Pentagon policy that offers vacation and travel reimbursements to service members traveling out-of-state to obtain an abortion or related services, an attempt to equalize access after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade.
More than 50 House Republicans have signed amendments seeking to change Pentagon policy on abortion. But a handful have been vocal in their criticism of the GOP for trying to push cutthroat policies.
« As a Republican, I want to make sure we’re showing compassion for women and not dropping the ball this week, » Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican of South Carolina, said in an interview when asked about her push. party to roll back the Pentagon’s abortion access policy. « That’s my concern as it is. »