Hard-right House Republicans are pushing to use the annual bill that sets the U.S. military budget and policy as an opportunity to pick fights with the Biden administration on abortion, race and transgender issues, jeopardizing its passage and the decades-old bipartisan consensus in Congress to prop up the Pentagon. .
Republican leaders had planned votes beginning Wednesday on the $886 billion measure, but as of Tuesday evening, they had yet to dissuade their ultraconservative colleagues from efforts to load it with politically charged provisions to combat what the GOP calls an “awakening” in the military. .
Those proposals — including rolling back a Pentagon policy providing service members access to abortions and defunding the military’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs — would alienate the moderate Republicans and Democrats whose votes would be needed to get the bill through the narrowly divided House.
The situation turned the annual defense policy bill into the latest test of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s leadership since the far right revolted over the debt ceiling deal he struck with President Biden, stalling the House to demand more influence on its agenda. Right-wing lawmakers have threatened to do so again if their priorities aren’t met, and this time, their tactics could capture what is widely seen as one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation before Congress each year, usually drawing broad support around the world. the political spectrum.
This year’s bill would give a 5.2 percent raise to the military, counter aggressive moves by China and Russia, and establish a special inspector general to monitor U.S. aid to Ukraine. But the legislation in recent years has increasingly become a magnet for culture battles, and with Republicans now in control of the House, right-wing members have tried to exploit it to push their socially conservative agenda.
It is an important part of the Republican Party’s attack on Mr. Biden and Democrats, whom they accuse of trying to infuse radical liberal policies into all areas of American life. The Pentagon stood out in their story because it allows Republicans to link their grievances about cultural issues to national security and patriotism, effectively arguing that progressive policies are not only misguided but dangerous.
“I believe it is 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, said in an interview.
Mr. Roy said he avoided ultimatums but would “wait” for votes on restoring the Pentagon’s policies on abortion and diversity, signaling that he would otherwise not support allowing the bill to reach the floor.
Conservatives also proposed several provisions targeting transgender people, including one that would deny coverage for transition services and another that would force them to use facilities that correspond to their gender at birth.
Republicans have already inserted some provisions into the bill that appear to be aimed at fueling culture war debates. During a drafting session last month in the House Armed Services Committee, GOP lawmakers added bans on drag shows on military bases and instruction on critical racial theory.
But party leaders fear that conservatives’ demands for even more social policy dictates could fracture the bipartisan coalition they’ve built around the bill, which received near-unanimous approval from the armed services panel.
“We had a full, healthy debate, a series of debates,” Representative Mike D. Rogers, the chairman of the armed services panel, said Tuesday during a hearing of the Rules Committee, referring to the drafting session last month. “There were several amendments that were adopted to address this.”
Mr McCarthy’s slim majority means he can afford to lose no more than four Republicans on any vote, giving factions of his party enormous leverage to make demands. Last month, 11 right-wing Republicans, including Mr. Roy, managed to stall the House floor by withholding their votes for a rule governing legislative debate, in protest of the debt ceiling deal.
It was not clear whether those lawmakers or others could do the same with the ground rules for the defense bill, which would block it from being considered.
“I’m voting for the rule, and I’m voting for the bill,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, said in an interview after promising that conservative Republicans would force votes to “reverse the direction of the radical gender ideology at DOD.” Gaetz was one of the lawmakers who protested the debt ceiling deal, holding up another act on the House floor.
Republicans are unlikely to get help from Democrats to bring the defense bill to the floor if the measure meets the demands of conservatives, and could lose critical Democratic support needed to pass the legislation if Republicans vote as a bloc to repeal Pentagon policies. race, gender and abortion. In any case, party-line passage of the bill would be almost unheard of on Capitol Hill, signaling the erosion of a rare pillar of bipartisanship in Congress.
Democrats argued that withdrawing diversity initiatives at the Pentagon would be jeopardizing the future of the military.
“Diversity is crucial,” Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said before the Rules Committee on Tuesday, imploring lawmakers not to allow a vote on the proposal. “We have recruiting challenges. We can’t take large groups of people and exclude them from that process. This is about national security. This is not about a leftist political agenda.”
They also expressed no confidence that House Republican leaders would succeed in bringing conservatives to heel.
“It seems like the Freedom Caucus is telling them that, ‘We can’t move forward if we don’t succeed on some of these divisive issues,'” Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, said in an interview Tuesday. . “And if history is any indicator, when the Freedom Caucus says, ‘Jump,’ Kevin McCarthy responds by saying, ‘How high?'”
If Republicans succeed in shepherding the bill to the floor, mainstream Republicans could help defeat some of the conservative social policy proposals.
Representatives Don Bacon of Nebraska and Michael R. Turner of Ohio, both Republicans, refused last month to support a proposal to eliminate funding for the Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs.
“To say you’ve completely dismantled diversity training makes no sense,” Mr. Bacon said in an interview, recalling his own diversity training in the Air Force. “You have to have some policies on diversity and racism and sexism.”
Conservative lawmakers may face similar hurdles in persuading Republican moderates to undo a Pentagon policy offering time off and travel reimbursement to service members traveling out of state to obtain an abortion or related services, an attempt to equalize access after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v.
More than 50 House Republicans have signed amendments seeking to change the Pentagon’s abortion policy. But a handful have been outspoken in their criticism of the GOP for trying to push unforgiving policies.
“As a Republican, I want to make sure that we show compassion to women, and that we don’t drop the ball this week,” Representative Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina, said in an interview when asked about her party’s push. to redo the Pentagon’s policy on abortion access. “That’s my concern as it stands.”