The fate of the annual defense bill was in doubt on Friday, after Republicans loaded the legislation with a raft of conservative social policy restrictions limiting access to abortions, gender transition procedures and diversity training for military personnel, alienating Democrats whose votes GOP leaders saw as. crucial to pass the legislation.
Democrats have vowed to oppose the bill in a vote expected Friday morning, accusing GOP leaders of turning what began as a bipartisan bill into a hyper-politicized salvo in a broader culture war to please a small, right-wing faction of their party.
“Extreme MAGA Republicans have chosen to hijack the historically bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act to continue to attack reproductive freedom and jam their right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people,” Representatives Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California , the top three Democratic leaders, said in a statement late Thursday in which they vowed to vote against the bill.
Republican leaders have expressed cautious optimism that they can unite their party behind the bill and pass it anyway, adding enough of the hard-line changes demanded by the far right to appease die-hards in their ranks and offset near-universal opposition from Democrats.
“I think we have enough votes to be the majority,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, who earlier this week predicted the bill’s possible demise if the GOP lost Democratic votes. “It’s going to be close, but I think we’re going to win.”
At stake is an $886 billion bill that would give a 5.2 percent raise to the military, include programs to counter aggressive moves by China and Russia, and establish a special inspector general to oversee U.S. aid to Ukraine.
The Republican-led House, urged by right-wing lawmakers, has put together a provision to undo a Pentagon policy adopted after the Supreme Court struck down abortion rights to provide time off and travel reimbursement to service members who must travel out of state to obtain an abortion. .
Republicans also added measures barring the military from offering health coverage for gender transition surgeries — which currently require a waiver — and related hormone therapies. They included language that would eliminate all diversity, equity and inclusion offices at the Pentagon, as well as the positions attached to them.
They adopted a measure to prohibit the education arm of the Pentagon from buying any book that contains pornographic material or “marries a radical sexual ideology”. And with the help of nine Democrats, they passed an amendment that would prohibit Department of Defense schools from teaching that the United States or its founding documents are racist.
The measures have no chance of passing in the Democratic-led Senate, which plans to begin considering its own version of the bill next week. Even if Republicans can muscle their bill through the House, the deep chasm between the chambers is expected to trigger a protracted battle that could threaten Congress’s ability to maintain its six-decade record of passing defense policy bills each year.
Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, lamented the Republican approach to the legislation, saying it ruined a bill that came out of the panel on a near-unanimous vote. In a statement Thursday night co-signed by all the top Democrats on the panel’s subcommittees, Mr. Smith said he “cannot and will not vote” for a bill that has “become an ode to bigotry and ignorance.”
The changes represented a victory for far-right Republicans who have pressured Speaker Kevin McCarthy to avoid working with Democrats, and instead cater to the party base, on major pieces of legislation. They spent weeks agitating for reluctant GOP leaders to include the socially conservative amendments in the defense bill debate, eventually forcing the issue by threatening to block progress on the legislation until they got their way.
The success of those measures on the House floor creates momentum for those members to exploit in future debates over the budget, where the hard right seeks similar changes across the government.
“It’s core and fundamental to defense that we stop making the defense department a social engineering experiment wrapped in a uniform,” Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas and one of the ultraconservative leaders, said on the floor Thursday.
Almost all Republicans voted for a measure to limit funding to allow service members to travel to obtain abortions, which the House adopted 221 to 213, and for another denying transgender troops coverage for gender reassignment surgeries and hormone therapy, which passed 222 to 211. A measure by Rep. Ralph Norman, Republican of South Carolina, who would eliminate all of the Pentagon’s diversity offices and employees, passed by a narrower margin, 214 to 213.
The House defeated a broader measure by Representative Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, that would have prohibited the Pentagon from spending any money on diversity training. That initiative failed on a vote of 210 to 221.
The votes came amid a heated floor debate in which Republicans and Democrats argued over issues of race, gender and sexuality. Representative Eli Crane, Republican of Arizona, at one point made a reference to “people of color” in defending his amendment to prevent diversity training from becoming a condition for getting or keeping Defense Department jobs. Representative Joyce Beatty of Ohio, a Democrat who is Black, demanded that his comments be removed from the record, and Mr. Crane later said in a statement that he “misspoke.”
Later in the evening, Representative Jill Tokuda, Democrat of Hawaii, admonished her GOP colleagues about the tenor of the debate.
“From the backwards, racially insensitive comments spoken on this floor, it seems like DEI training would be good here in the halls of Congress,” she said.
The one point of bipartisan agreement Thursday appeared to be broad opposition to Republican efforts to reduce or eliminate military aid and arms shipments to Ukraine.
On a vote of 276 to 147, the House rejected a proposal to prohibit the Biden administration from sending cluster munitions to Ukraine, with two lawmakers voting in attendance. The Biden administration announced last week that it would send the weapons to Kiev, despite bipartisan concerns that the weapons pose too great a danger to civilians.
The amendment was offered by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, who also failed in her effort to strip a $300 million program to train and equip Ukrainian soldiers that had been part of the defense bill for nearly a decade. The House rejected that effort by a vote of 341 to 89, along with a similar proposal by Mr. Gaetz to prohibit Congress from appropriating any more money for Ukraine’s war effort, which was defeated 358 to 70.