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House passes defense bill mostly along party lines with culture war measures attached

The House of Representatives voted on multiple amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that pertain to issues related to Ukraine funding, abortion access for members of the military and climate change.
Anna Moneymaker
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The House of Representatives voted on multiple amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that pertain to issues related to Ukraine funding, abortion access for members of the military and climate change.

The House has narrowly passed its defense authorization bill mostly along party lines, shattering a nearly 60-year precedent of passing the annual package with significant bipartisan support.

The vote was 219-210, with four Republicans opposing the package and four Democrats backing it.

"Under this bill, men and women in uniform who make sacrifices for our nation every day will receive the biggest pay raise in decades," said House Speaker Kevin McCarthy after the vote Friday morning. "Radical programs that are forced on troops at the expense of readiness are now eliminated, cutting edge technology that is essential for the future of this country and to keep freedom around the world from the rise of China and Russia will receive more investment than we've watched in the past."

McCarthy agreed to demands from a group of conservatives who threatened to block a vote on the annual defense measure unless their amendments on a range of far right policies were allowed. House Republicans were successful in pushing through amendments on various social policies, including a measure eliminating the Pentagon's offices of diversity, equity and inclusion, and a measure denying health care coverage for transgender-related medical treatments for service members.

"The military needs to be focused on readiness and lethality and all these other things are distractors from that and harm our national security," Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., told reporters Friday.

A pivotal momentin the course of the debate this week came from Texas GOP Rep. Ronny Jackson, whose amendment would prohibit the Defense Department from paying or reimbursing travel expenses related to abortion care for service members — a policy implemented by the Pentagon after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

"The days of the radical left ignoring the law and pushing their destructive social agenda in the military are done," Jackson said on the House floor Thursday.

Democratic backlash was swift.

"As leaders of the Pro-Choice Caucus, we are outraged at House Republicans' attempt to force their extreme anti-abortion agenda onto America's servicemembers in what should be a bipartisan bill," Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Diana DeGette of Colorado said in a statement.

"It's a shame that House Republicans would use women to defend our nation on battlefields, but refuse to trust them to make their own healthcare decisions. Our servicemembers fight for our freedoms. As lawmakers, we should be working to protect their freedoms—not trying to take their rights away."

The abortion amendment echoes a similar controversy playing out in the Senate, where Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville has been blocking military promotions until the Defense Department revokes the policy.

The various culture war amendments effectively acted as poison pills for most Democrats, who couldn't stomach supporting the package with the attached amendments.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a former Navy helicopter pilot, told reporters she backed the bill coming out of the House Armed Services committee, but voted no on Friday because of the added measures on abortion and other social issues.

"They've turned a bipartisan defense bill into a vehicle to drive a really out-of-touch culture war agenda – an agenda that attacks service members ... who are women, LGBTQ and people of color," she said.

Another female veteran who opposed the bill, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., said she was surprised that more Republicans who expressed concerns about adding controversial issues to the bill ended up backing the abortion amendment.

She thought as many as 15 would oppose it, but in the end, only 2 broke ranks.

"This is absolutely a back door to banning abortions across the nation," Houlahan said.

Both Sherrill and Houlahan waved off any political blowback for voting against other measures in the bill like pay raises for service members, saying their constituents know about their military backgrounds and they were skeptical these measures would advance in the Senate.

Another example of outsize influence of House Freedom caucus

The Armed Services Committee passed the bill 58-1 last month.

In a statement Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the top Democrat on that committee, along with other senior Democrats on the committee, said they wouldn't vote for the defense package's passage in light of the slew of GOP amendments.

"What was once an example of compromise and functioning government has become an ode to bigotry and ignorance. Attacks on reproductive rights, access to basic health care, and efforts to address our country's history of racism and marginalization of huge swaths of our country will worsen our recruitment and retention crisis, make our military less capable, and do grievous harm to our national defense and national security," the statement read.

The fact that a bill that was expected to have bipartisan support ended up with only a handful of Democrats supporting it throws McCarthy's very narrow majority into stark relief and provides another example of the speaker acquiescing to the demands of the ultra-right Freedom Caucus in order to pass legislation.

The speaker agreed to a range of amendments to avoid a repeat of a recent episode when Freedom Caucus members defeated a procedural vote to debate an energy bill because they disagreed with McCarthy's strategy on the debt limit. This time, McCarthy gave in to their push to allow debates and votes on the floor on both funding for Ukraine and a host of social issues that many moderates worried would draw backlash from voters, and weren't expected to advance in the Senate.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., pressed to strip out the additional $300 million for Ukraine, but that effort failed. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., another opponent of U.S. military assistance in Ukraine, offered an amendment to withdraw that aid, but it was overwhelmingly defeated.

House Democratic leaders accused Republicans of using the bill as a means to push a conservative social policy agenda.

"Extreme MAGA Republicans have chosen to hijack the historically bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act to continue attacking reproductive freedom and jamming their right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people," House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, caucus chair Pete Aguilar, and whip Katherine Clark said in a statement earlier this week. "House Republicans have turned what should be a meaningful investment in our men and women in uniform into an extreme and reckless legislative joyride."

Even though it passed the House, the defense package is likely dead-on-arrival in the Senate, given the various changes from the GOP.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already said the Senate will take up its own version of the package, teeing up partisan clashes when the two chambers reconcile their bills. He is aiming to vote on a bill by the end of the month.

Asked about the path ahead in the Senate, McCarthy said he "hope[s] the bills that come out of the House are different than the bills that Schumer's in charge of."

"You know what? We designed our government to be this way because then we go to conference and we find where we can unite," he told reporters.

Earlier this week the White House released a statement on the House bill that noted the many bipartisan elements that boosted Pentagon priorities, but it also listed a host of provisions it opposed.

On changes to existing diversity initiatives the White House stated: "Legislation that reduces DoD's ability to create a positive work environment and fully leverage the best our nation has to offer puts the Department at a strategic disadvantage."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
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