House GOP approves mammoth annual defense bill with culture war amendments

House GOP approves mammoth annual defense bill with culture war amendments

The House on Friday approved its version of the annual defense policy bill that includes a number of controversial culture war amendments, setting the stage for a showdown with the Democratic-controlled Senate over legislation that typically enjoys bipartisan support.

The chamber cleared the $883.7 billion measure — known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — in a largely party-line 217-199 vote. Six Democrats voted in favor of the measure, while three Republicans opposed it.

The House edition of the legislation is all but certain to languish in the Senate where Democrats, who hold the majority, abhor many of the amendments Republicans added, including those pertaining to abortion, transgender rights, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

The Senate Armed Services Committee this week held a markup for its version of the NDAA, the text of which is not expected to be released until July, a spokesperson for the panel told The Hill. Leaders in both chambers will then craft a compromise version of the legislation, which has been voted on and signed into law every year for the past six decades.

Top Republicans, nonetheless, touted their bill as a strong measure that will back U.S. troops, empower the National Guard to crack down on the southern border, and provide American forces with innovative technologies.

“This year’s NDAA will refocus our military on its core mission of defending America and its interests across the globe, fund the deployment of the National Guard to the southwest border, expedite innovation and reduce the acquisition timeline for new weaponry, support our allies, and strengthen our nuclear posture and missile defense programs,” Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said in a statement after the legislation cleared the chamber.

At the top of the list of culture war amendments added to the House’s NDAA was a provision spearheaded by Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-Texas) that seeks to block a Biden administration policy that reimburses service members for the travel costs incurred when receiving an abortion. It zeroes in on the same Pentagon policy that Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) targeted through his months-long blockade on military promotions last year.

The House approved Van Duyne’s amendment in a 214-207 vote. Two Republicans — Reps. John Duarte (Calif.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) — opposed the measure, while one Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), supported it.

Republicans also went after LGBTQ medical treatment and diversity efforts in the military, including an amendment from Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) to block funding to cover gender transition medical procedures for transgender service members. That amendment cleared the chamber in a 213-206 vote.

A handful of other proposals slash DEI programs, including an amendment from Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) to place Pentagon jobs related to DEI on a permanent hiring freeze. The House adopted the measure in a 216-206 vote.

Ahead of Thursday’s votes, Democrats warned GOP leaders against loading the bill with so-called poison pills — Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), a Navy veteran, argued that the conservative amendments “cheapen” the defense bill.

“They are choosing to use that National Defense Authorization Act to shove their extremist culture war agenda down the throats of the American people,” Sherrill said.

The partisan bickering broke out over the NDAA after the House Armed Service Committee advanced the annual defense policy bill in a bipartisan 57-1 vote last month. That bipartisan flair, however, ended after the House Rules Committee teed up votes on a series of culture war amendments, and lawmakers cleared some of them.

Only six Democrats — Reps. Don Davis (N.C.), Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (Wash.), Jared Golden (Maine), Vicente Gonzalez (Texas), Mary Sattler Peltola (Alaska), and Cuellar — voted “yes” on final passage. Three Republicans, meanwhile, opposed the legislation: Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Thomas Massie (Ky.), and Rosendale.

The GOP strategy of embracing culture war issues in the NDAA is not new. Then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did the same last year, relying on a united GOP as almost all Democrats opposed the bill after Republicans loaded it with similar amendments attacking Pentagon policies on abortion access, medical care for transgender service members, and DEI initiatives.

The legislation was eventually ironed out with the Senate, with the upper chamber making concessions in order to boot out the abortion policy provisions. A handful of culture war amendments did, however, make it into the final version, including measures to limit critical race theory — an academic framework evaluating U.S. history through the lens of racism that has become a political catch-all buzzword for any race-related teaching — at military academies and prohibit unauthorized flags on military bases, which would ban the flying of LGBTQ pride flags.

Similar to last year, Republican leaders this time around had little room for error when it came to the final vote on the NDAA. Republicans have a razor-thin majority in the House, allowing them to lose just two GOP votes on any party-line measures, assuming all lawmakers are present.

The House-passed NDAA abides by the spending caps laid out in last year’s debt limit agreement, imposing a 1 percent increase over the fiscal 2024 defense policy bill. The legislation, however, reshuffles billions of dollars proposed by the Pentagon, increasing funds for submarines, paring down money for fighter jets and delaying the retirement of dozens of aircraft.

The bill also has a provision that would rehire service members kicked out for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine.

In addition, the House NDAA contains widely supported quality of life initiatives for service members, such as a roughly 20 percent pay boost for junior enlisted members and increases to housing allowances.

Such measures, aimed at helping younger military families, keeping troops in the services longer and attracting potential recruits, mean almost all service members will make more than $30,000 annually in base pay.

That’s in addition to a 4.5 percent pay raise for all service members next year, as included in the bill.

Another noteworthy measure reserves the right of state governors to approve the transfer of their Air National Guard units to the Space Force, notable as the Biden administration is seeking to move such service members into the relatively new military branch. But the request has been opposed by all 50 state governors and numerous House and Senate lawmakers.

Updated at 12:42 p.m. EDT.

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