GOP culture war amendments could complicate annual defense bill

Culture war amendments that could be added to the House’s mammoth annual defense bill threaten to turn the normally bipartisan measure into a partisan one, potentially complicating its path to final approval and creating headaches for GOP leaders down the line.

The House will vote this week on whether to attach those amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Any number of them would sink support from Democrats, who supported the bill as it came out of committee and had praised its bipartisanship.

With the House GOP’s extremely thin majority, an NDAA with the culture war amendments would mean Republican leaders have little room for error.

And if approved, the measures will be a point of contention again down the line as the House negotiates a final version of the defense bill with the Democratic-led Senate.

One top priority for conservatives, led by Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-Texas), would block a Biden administration policy to reimburse service members for the travel costs when obtaining an abortion.

Other items led by Reps. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) and Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) would prohibit the Department of Defense from covering gender-affirming surgeries for transgender individuals. Amendments led by Norman and Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Clay Higgins (R-La.) would take aim at diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices and programs, through hiring freezes or eliminating entire offices and positions.

“This Republican leadership wouldn’t know bipartisanship if it hit ‘em in the back of the head,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the ranking member on the House Rules Committee. “Bottom line is, this is a bill that passed 57 to 1 out of committee, and they’re going to load it up with all of these crappy poison pill MAGA right-wing amendments, and it’ll be a partisan bill. It’s just wasting time, because the Senate’s not going to go for what they’re proposing, and neither will the White House.”

The risk of losing Democratic support for the traditionally bipartisan bill is prompting opposition to some amendments from Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a moderate member of the House Armed Services Committee.

“I may vote against some of these, even though I may agree with them personally. But I want to make sure we’re going to pass it. We’re probably going to need some Democrat support,” Bacon said. “You’ve got 10 or 20 of these guys who aren’t going to vote for the defense bill, and they’re the ones who put these poison pills up.”

Other members, though, are not as concerned about the effect that the socially conservative amendments will have on the must-pass legislation, which also includes a pay raise for troops.

“It’s important to draw the line, and I think it’s a very mild line,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said. “Sometimes I think we’re trying to go a little too far and it’s so unrealistic as to be counterproductive. But on some of this stuff, I really don’t think it is … We’re just trying to put the [Department of Defense] back into kind of the same cultural footing that it was in just not very long ago. We’re not asking for anything crazy here.”

The culture war amendments had been a point of contention in the House GOP last year, getting added to the House’s defense bill after pressure from the right flank. Many of the same amendments are on this year’s list.

A few of the items made it in the final version that was signed into law, including measures to restrict “critical race theory” at military academies and ban unauthorized flags on military bases, having the effect of prohibiting the flying of LGBTQ flags.

But the abortion, transgender surgery and DEI provisions did not make it into the final version. Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) handling of the final NDAA negotiation had earned him sharp criticism from the House Freedom Caucus, saying the negotiation on the final bill had “undermine[d] many of the most critical House GOP positions.”

To hard-line conservatives, the point of the amendments is to have the opportunity to negotiate to get some of them signed into law down the line — and to get members on the record on the provisions.

“It’s always kind of about the process and making sure you can get the shot to have some votes on these things,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a Freedom Caucus member.

But while the hard-line conservatives were aggressive in pushing for their priorities last year, the NDAA amendments so far have been much less of a public battle. Whether they take a more aggressive stance on the bill later on will likely depend on which amendments are approved this week.

“It depends on how many there are that don’t get voted out, and then we’ll make a judgment call,” Norman said.

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