A divided House on Thursday voted to limit abortion access, block transgender health services and limit diversity training for military personnel, potentially jeopardizing passage of the annual defense bill as Republicans, pushed from their right flank, they loaded the measure with conservative political dictates.
The House voted 221 to 213 to overturn a Pentagon policy that grants service members access to abortion regardless of where they are stationed, with Republicans pushing it to nearly unanimous Democratic opposition approval.
In a vote of 222 to 211, the House also adopted a measure to prevent the military health plan from covering gender transition surgeries — which currently can only be covered with a waiver — and gender-affirming hormone therapy. And on Thursday the house was on track to vote on a Republican proposal to siphon money from the Pentagon for all diversity, equity and inclusion training.
Taken together, the series of changes — which far-right lawmakers had asked to challenge as a condition of allowing the legislation to move forward — threatened to weaken critical Democratic support for the annual defense policy measure, a bill $886 billion that would grant a 5.2 percent pay rise to military personnel, counter aggressive moves by China and Russia, and set up a special inspector general to oversee U.S. aid to Ukraine.
« I don’t think I’ve ever voted for an NDAA, » said Rep. Pete Aguilar, Democrat of California and the No. 1 Democrat. 3, using the initials of the National Defense Authorization Act, one of the few legislative acts considered as an indispensable element to be presented to Congress every year. « I’m a no. »
The action came amid an extraordinarily acrimonious House debate over the annual defense policy bill, normally a bipartisan affair that garners broad support, which this week instead became a battleground in a GOP-fueled political culture war.
In heated exchanges on the floor, Republicans accused Democrats and the Biden administration of trying to turn the Pentagon into a hotbed of radical progressivism, while Democrats said Republicans were trying to use the Defense Department to build a extreme agenda to revoke the rights of women, people of color and transgender individuals.
« It is this administration that has turned the Defense Department into a uniform-wrapped social engineering experiment, » said Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican. “The Americans I spoke to at home don’t want a weak military; they don’t want a smart soldier; they don’t want rainbow propaganda on the bases; they don’t want to pay for troop sex changes.
Democrats were particularly outraged by the inclusion of the abortion restriction, warning that they could not support the defense bill with such a measure included.
“The MAGA majority is using our defense bill to get one step closer to the one thing they really care about: a nationwide abortion ban,” Rep. Katherine M. Clark said in a floor speech. of Massachusetts, the Democratic whip.
Without Democratic support, Republicans would need nearly unanimous support from their side to push the measure through the House, where they could afford to lose no more than four member votes.
It’s unusual, though not unprecedented, for the House to pass a defense bill on a one-party vote. House Democrats did so in the summer of 2019, but with a much larger majority. And it wasn’t clear whether Republicans would be able to muster that much support.
Even if Republicans manage to get the bill through the House, the measures they attached have no chance of passing the Democrat-led Senate, which is expected to adopt its version of the legislation next week. A protracted fight between the houses could jeopardize the chances of finally reaching a compromise and enacting a bill, as Congress has done every year for more than six decades.
Democrats called the abortion measure unacceptable, particularly in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down abortion rights, which sparked a rush by some states to enact bans and limits on the procedure.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a New Jersey Democrat and Navy veteran, said the Republican measure « puts the lives of service women and military families at risk by denying the basic right to travel for health care that is no longer available where I’m stationed. » Only one Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, voted to overturn the Pentagon’s abortion-access policy.
Republicans defended the move as a matter of principle, arguing that the Pentagon policy it would overturn — offering vacations and travel reimbursements to troops traveling out of state to get an abortion — violated a ban on taxpayer-funded abortions.
“This illegal Biden-approved policy has no place in our military,” said Rep. Ronny Jackson, a Texas Republican who authored the proposal. « Taxpayers’ money will go directly to support abortions, and anyone in this House who says otherwise is blatantly lying to the American people. »
The debate came after President Kevin McCarthy gave in this week to a small group of ultra-conservative Republicans who threatened to block defense legislation if their proposals, including the withdrawal of US aid to Ukraine, were not met. taken into consideration.
But on Thursday the House went ahead, slogging through dozens of proposed amendments. He overwhelmingly defeated two Republican efforts to cut US military assistance to Ukraine. The vote was 341 to 89 to reject a measure by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican of Georgia, to end a $300 million program to train and equip Ukrainian soldiers, which has been underway for nearly a decade. And by a vote of 358 to 70, the House rejected a proposal by Congressman Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, to ban the sending of further security assistance to Ukraine. In both cases, the supporters were all Republicans.
These results were a victory for mainstream Republicans, who defended US military assistance to Ukraine as vital to countering Russia and should back the Biden administration when it approaches Congress to approve additional money for Ukraine, likely this fall. But they reflected on how anti-Ukrainian sentiment is growing in Republican ranks. In the spring, just 57 Republicans voted against a $40 billion military and humanitarian assistance package for Ukraine.
Republican leaders had hoped to avoid those votes, which exposed internal rifts in their party over war funding, as well as a series of social policy amendments they feared could damage the GOP brand. Instead, the debate has at times turned into a nasty exchange on issues of race, sex and gender.
At one point, Rep. Eli Crane, an Arizona Republican who advocated preventing diversity training from being a prerequisite for military jobs or promotions, appeared to refer to blacks as « people of color, » arguing in favor of his proposal.
« The military was never meant to be, you know, inclusive, » Crane said, arguing that meeting standards should be the only criterion. « My amendment has nothing to do with whether people of color or black people or anyone else can serve or not. »
The remark drew immediate condemnation in the floor from Rep. Joyce Beatty, an Ohio Democrat who is black, who said it was offensive and called for it to be struck off the congressional record, which it was. In a statement provided later, Mr. Crane said he had « bad mouthed » during the debate.
Hours earlier, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the rules committee, chastised Republican leaders for their approach to the defense measure, saying they had « succeeded in screwing up a bipartisan bill and putting it on the road to become hyperpartisan by burdening themselves with every divisive social problem under the sun” and accusing them of catering to “a dozen or so far-right MAGA lugs.”
Although Republicans have failed in several efforts to cut assistance to Ukraine, it was unclear whether a proposal to prevent the Biden administration from sending cluster munitions to Kiev, which is due to be considered later Thursday night, would soon a similar fate.
Republican leaders have fretted about sending cluster munitions to Ukraine for months, while last week most Democrats were outraged when President Biden announced he intended to do so. They argued that the bulky warheads—which scatter on impact and routinely leave unexploded ordnance in the ground, endangering civilians for decades to come—would cost the United States the morale edge in warfare.
This week, a number of conservative Republicans sided with Democrats opposed to the move.
Annie Carni contributed report.