WASHINGTON ―The House on Friday narrowly passed the annual defense authorization bill largely along party lines after Democrats withdrew their support in protest over amendments that took a hard-right tack on numerous hot-button, culture-war issues.
The vote was 219-210.
The final $874 billion bill includes amendments that overturn the Pentagon’s abortion leave policy, restrict medical care for transgender troops, eliminate military diversity initiatives and bar the Pentagon from implementing President Joe Biden’s climate change initiatives. It sets the stage for a showdown with the Democratic-held Senate later this year over social policy in the military.
Republican leaders put forth the partisan social policy amendments to the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act to secure support from the House Freedom Caucus. However, the House overwhelmingly rejected other Freedom Caucus amendments that would have ended military aid to Ukraine.
“We’ve gradually shifted the center of gravity in the Republican conference to the right,” Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said at a Freedom Caucus press conference before the vote on Friday. “You’re witnessing a proper and effective correction of the injury that has been brought upon our military.”
Absent Democratic support, Republicans needed to rely on the Freedom Caucus to carry the bill over the finish line. The caucus includes numerous members who typically oppose the annual bill.
A provision in the bill from Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, bans the military from providing troops with paid travel leave to receive abortions if they live in states where it’s no longer legal. Another provision from Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., bans sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy for transgender troops.
A third provision from Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., eliminates diversity, equity and inclusion offices and personnel in the armed forces. And a fourth, from Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, would prevent the Defense Department — the world’s largest institutional fossil fuel emitter — from implementing Biden’s executive order requiring emissions reductions across the federal government.
“House Republicans have turned what should be a meaningful investment in our men and women in uniform into an extreme and reckless joyride,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Democratic leaders said in a Thursday statement. “The bill undermines a woman’s freedom to seek abortion care, targets the rights of LGBTQ+ servicemembers and bans books that should otherwise be available to military families.”
Despite their opposition, Democratic leaders did not whip against the bill. Four Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the bill: Rep. Don Davis of North Carolina, Jared Golden of Maine, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington and Gabe Vasquez of New Mexico.
Meanwhile, four Republicans — Andy Biggs and Eli Crane of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado and Thomas Massie of Kentucky — voted against the bill.
Most Republicans joined Democrats on Thursday in killing a Freedom Caucus proposal to ban Ukraine security aid, voting 70-358 on an amendment from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
The House also rejected by a vote of 147-276 an amendment from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to ban the transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine. The transfers have already started after Biden decided to send them last week following months of pressure from some Republican lawmakers. The Biden administration hopes the cluster bombs will compensate for Ukrainian munitions shortages.
Several Democrats objected to the decision, noting the long-term risk they pose to civilians given that they have a dud rate of up to 2.35%. Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., had offered a bipartisan amendment that would have banned the transfer of cluster munitions to every country, but Republicans did not allow a floor vote on that legislation.
Even before Republicans added the Freedom Caucus’ social policy amendments, the White House objected to several provisions in the bill. That includes the establishment of a special inspector general for Ukraine aid, the institutionalization of the sea-launched nuclear cruise missile research program and the bill’s efforts to procure the next San Antonio-class amphibious warfare ship in FY24.
But there are several less controversial provisions among the 370 bill amendments the House voted on this week. That includes a provision from Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., requiring the Defense Department to deepen cooperation with the Mexican military on fentanyl trafficking and an extra $5 million from Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-Texas, for U.S. Northern Command’s Office of Defense Cooperation with Mexico.
Another amendment from Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., authorizes the Pentagon to stockpile components of munitions supply chains that can take a long time to procure.
And an amendment from Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., would allow Taiwanese military officers to wear their uniforms when visiting the United States.
Meanwhile, an amendment from Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., withholds 10% of the travel budget for the Office of the Secretary of Defense until the Pentagon submits a plan to transfer Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Taiwan under presidential drawdown authority. The Pentagon is preparing a plan to transfer weapons to Taiwan from U.S. stockpiles.
Another Gallagher amendment would require the Pentagon to designate priority combatant commands. The Pentagon would then have to prioritize arms sales contracts and procurement to countries within these combatant commands.
Additionally, a Biggs amendment would require an annual Pentagon audit and cut the Defense Department budget by 0.5% if it fails.
Conversely, the Senate defense authorization bill includes nonbinding language that calls for a military spending increase beyond the $886 billion laid out in the debt ceiling agreement through supplemental bills. The Senate is set to begin votes on that bill next week.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., so far has ruled out defense spending increases beyond the debt ceiling cap, putting him at odds with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.