WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. House on Friday approved a sweeping annual defense bill that provides an expected 5.2% pay raise for service members but strays from traditional military policy with political add-ons from Republicans to block abortion coverage, diversity initiatives at the Pentagon and transgender issues that deeply divided the chamber.
Democrats voted against the package, which had sailed out of the House Armed Services Committee on an almost unanimous vote just weeks ago, but was being loaded up with the Republican priorities during a heated late-night floor debate heading into Friday’s session.
The final vote was 219-210, with four Democrats voting with the GOP, and four Republicans opposed. The bill is expected to go nowhere in the Democratic-majority Senate.
Efforts to halt U.S. funding for Ukraine in the war against Russia were turned back, but Republicans tacked on provisions to stem the Defense Department diversity initiatives and to restrict access to abortions. The abortion issue has been championed by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who is singularly stalling Senate confirmation of military officers, including the new Commandant of the Marine Corps.
“We are continuing to block the Biden Administration’s ‘woke’ agenda,” said Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., at a press conference with conservatives ahead of Friday’s vote.
Turning the must-pass Defense bill into a partisan battleground underscores how deeply the nation’s military, a once hallowed institution, has been unexpectedly swept up in the political culture wars over race, equity and women’s health care that are now driving the Republican Party priorities in a deepening national divide.
During one particularly tense moment in the debate, Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, a former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, spoke of how difficult it was to look across the aisle as Republicans chip away at gains for women, Black people and others in the military.
“You are setting us back,” she said during a debate over an amendment from Rep. Eli Crane, R-Ariz., that would prevent the Defense Department from requiring participation in race-based training for hiring, promotions or retention.
Crane argued that U.S. adversaries Russia and China don’t mandate diversity measures in their military operations, and neither should the U.S. “We don’t want our military to be a social experiment,” he said. “We want the best of the best.”
When Crane used the pejorative phrase “colored people” for Black military personnel, Beatty asked for his words to be stricken from the record.
Friday’s voted capped a tumultuous week for Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy as conservatives essentially drove the agenda, forcing their colleagues to consider their ideas for the must-pass bill that has been approved each year by Congress unfailingly since World War II.
“I think he’s doing great because we are moving through — it was like over 1,500 amendments — and we’re moving through them,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.
But Democrats, in a joint leadership statement, said they were voting against the bill because House Republicans “turned what should be a meaningful investment in our men and women in uniform into an extreme and reckless legislative joyride.”
“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,” said the statement from Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Whip Katherine Clark and Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar.
The defense bill authorizes $874.2 billion in the coming year for the defense spending, keeping with President Joe Biden’s budget request. The funding itself is to be allocated later, when Congress handles the appropriation bills, as is the normal process.
The package sets policy across the Defense Department, as well as in aspects of the Energy Department, and this year focuses particularly on the U.S. stance toward China, Russia and other national security fronts.
Republican opposition to U.S. support for the war in Ukraine drew a number of amendments, including one to block the use of cluster munitions that Biden just sent to help Ukraine battle Russia. It was a controversial move since the devices, which can leave behind unexploded munitions endangering civilians, are banned by many other countries.
But mostly those efforts to stop U.S. support for Ukraine, including an amendment from Greene to rollback some funding, failed as most lawmakers voted to continue supporting the war effort against Russia.
Several others measures to rollback the Pentagon’s diversity and inclusion measures and block some medical care for transgender personnel were approved, and tacked onto the package.
Rep. Ronny Jackson, the Texas Republican who served as a White House physician, including to Donald Trump, the former president, pushed forward the abortion measure that would prohibit the Defense secretary from paying for or reimbursing expenses relating to abortion services.
Jackson and other Republicans praised Tuberville for his hardline stance against the Pentagon abortion policy, which was thrust into prominence as states started banning the procedure following the Supreme Court decision last summer overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade law.
“Now he’s got support, he’s got back up here in the House,” Jackson said.
But it’s not at all certain the Pentagon abortion policy will eventually be overturned as the House measure moves to the Senate.
It took all week for Republicans to work through their own differences and arrive at a vote. But even with approval by the House, the package still must go to the Senate which is preparing its own version. Senate Democrats have the majority but will need to build a bipartisan bill with Republicans to ensure enough support for passage in that chamber.
Democratic members of the Armed Services Committee, led by Rep. Adam Smith, the lead Democrat on the committee, went from supporting the bill to opposing it once the various social policy amendments were added.
Smith, who is white, tried to explain to Crane and other colleagues why the Pentagon’s diversity initatives were important in America, drawing on his own experience as a businessman trying to reach outside his own circle of contacts to be able to hire and gain deeper understanding of other people.
Smith lamented that the bill that passed overwhelming out of the Armed Services Committee “no longer exists. What was once an example of compromise and functioning government has become an ode to bigotry and ignorance.”
Associated Press writers Farnoush Amiri and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.