House passes defense bill after adopting controversial amendments targeting abortion policy and other issues

Jul 15, 2023, 11:00 AM

Seen here is a view of the U.S. Capitol dome on May 16 in Washington, DC. House Speaker Kevin McCar...

Seen here is a view of the U.S. Capitol dome on May 16 in Washington, DC. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy faces a challenge on July 14 of passing a defense policy bill over the finish line. Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(CNN) — The House voted Friday to pass a sweeping defense policy bill following contentious debate and the adoption of controversial amendments that touched on hot-button social issues.

The addition of amendments pushed by conservative hardliners related to abortion policy and transgender health care access as well as targeting diversity and inclusion programs infuriated Democrats and led to push back from some moderate Republicans – and will now set up a clash with the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, sets the policy agenda and authorizes funding for the Department of Defense and is considered critical, must-pass legislation.

It authorizes $886 billion for national defense programs as well as a 5.2% pay increase for servicemembers, according to a fact sheet from the House Armed Services Committee. The bill includes provisions to counter China’s influence, improve overall military readiness and missile defense capabilities and promote technological innovation.

The move to allow the contentious amendment votes marked a major concession by GOP leaders to conservatives hardliners – and may be a preview of legislative fights to come, including the high-stakes effort to fund the government.

The fight to pass the defense bill out of the House showed once again the power of conservative hardliners in the narrow GOP majority, and conservatives cheered the bill’s passage.

While the national defense bill typically passes with widespread bipartisan support, the bill was passed on a largely party-line vote of 219 to 210. Four Democrats crossed the aisle to vote with Republicans and four GOP members voted against the bill.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, defended the strategy of allowing controversial amendments put forward by the right flank, telling CNN’s Manu Raju that members “actually have a voice with what the bill will look like at the very end. It doesn’t predetermine what will be in the bill.”

White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates, however, accused Republicans of “hijacking a bipartisan bill” and holding US military readiness hostage by including controversial conservative priorities.

Bates also linked the House GOP bill to Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who has held up military promotions in a bid to reverse a Pentagon policy that pays for servicemembers’ travel to access abortion care.

“Holding America’s military readiness – as well as service members and their families – hostage to an extreme, divisive political agenda undermines our national security and disrespects the sacrifices that those who wear the uniform,” Bates said in a statement. “That’s what House Republicans, Senator Tuberville, and Senate Republicans who refuse to challenge him are doing by hijacking a bipartisan bill and devolving it into a hardcore rightwing wishlist.”

In a scathing statement, the three House Democratic leaders attacked Republicans for pushing the defense bill to the right.

The Senate is expected to begin consideration of its own version of the NDAA next week – with an initial procedural vote to take up the bill on Tuesday. The House-passed bill will need to be reconciled with whatever the Senate passes.

The four Republican “nay” votes on the House-passed bill were: Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado, Eli Crane of Arizona and Tom Massie of Kentucky.

The four Democratic “yea” votes were: Reps. Jared Golden of Maine, Donald Davis of North Carolina, Gabriel Vasquez of New Mexico, and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington.

Adoption of controversial conservative amendments

The House voted until nearly midnight on Thursday night dealing with a slew of amendments, including adopting a controversial provision eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion programs and staff in the Department of Defense, a tough pill to swallow for Democrats and a win for conservative hardliners.

Rep. Ralph Norman, a Republican from South Carolina, offered the measure that would eliminate all Pentagon DEI programs and personnel. In dramatic fashion the amendment initially failed 216-216 but was considered again and passed 214-213.

Another high-profile amendment that was adopted by the House earlier Thursday evening would prohibit the secretary of defense from paying for or reimbursing expenses relating to abortion services.

Many Democrats made clear ahead of the vote that if the amendment was included as part of the defense bill, they would be unlikely to support final passage.

The House also passed an amendment that would bar a health care program for service members from covering hormone treatments for transgender individuals and gender confirmation surgeries.

Colorado conservative Rep. Lauren Boebert’s amendment to block military schools from purchasing or having “pornographic and radical gender ideology books” in their libraries also passed.

In an overwhelming vote, the House failed to adopt an amendment banning cluster munitions from being sold or transferred to Ukraine. GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia offered the amendment, which failed 147-276.

What’s next

The NDAA, which has been passed by Congress every year for the last six decades, now faces an uncertain future as the House and Senate are on a collision course over competing priorities for the bill.

Greene told CNN last night that she would vote against the defense bill over its support for the war in Ukraine, calling it her “red line.” But she voted for the massive bill on Friday morning.

McCarthy offered her a spot on the House-Senate conference committee to negotiate a bicameral compromise, the hard-right Georgia Republican told CNN. Greene is not on the House Armed Services Committee, so the appointment is unusual.

The move gives a unique window into the furious horse-trading that took shape behind the scenes for the speaker to push the bill through on the narrowest of margins – and sets the stage for what’s to come as both chambers will face a major challenge of trying to reconcile a version of the bill that can pass both.

Asked by CNN if she voted for the bill simply because of her appointment, Greene said, “Right because I have the opportunity to do what I continue to do this week. And I want this opportunity. And I think that’s an important opportunity for me to represent … the people all over America that do not want their tax dollars on an NDAA that funds a foreign war.”

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House passes defense bill after adopting controversial amendments targeting abortion policy and other issues