House Republicans push through defense bill limiting abortion access and halting diversity efforts

FILE - Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., walks with reporters after votes in the House, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 22, 2023. House Republicans this month have begun to push a series of policy changes around abortion, seeking to build on the work of anti-abortion advocates who helped catapult the issue successfully to the Supreme Court last year. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) (J. Scott Applewhite, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The House passed a sweeping defense bill Friday that provides an expected 5.2% pay raise for service members but strays from traditional military policy with Republicans add-ons blocking abortion coverage, diversity initiatives at the Pentagon and transgender care that deeply divided the chamber.

Democrats voted against the package, which had sailed out of the House Armed Services Committee on an almost unanimous vote weeks ago before being loaded with the GOP priorities during a heated late-night floor debate this week.

The final vote was 219-210, with four Democrats siding with the GOP and four Republicans opposed. The bill, as written, is expected to go nowhere in the Democratic-majority Senate.

Efforts to halt U.S. funding for Ukraine in its war against Russia were turned back, but Republicans added provisions to stem the Defense Department's diversity initiatives and to restrict access to abortions. The abortion issue has been championed by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who is singularly stalling Senate confirmation of military officers, including the new commandant of the Marine Corps.

“We are continuing to block the Biden administration's ‘woke’ agenda,” said Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.

Turning the must-pass defense bill into a partisan battleground shows how deeply the nation's military has been unexpectedly swept up in disputes over race, equity and women's health care that are now driving the Republican Party's priorities in America's widening national divide.

During one particularly tense moment in the debate, Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, a former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, spoke of how difficult it was to look across the aisle as Republicans chip away at gains for women, Black people and others in the military.

“You are setting us back,” she said about an amendment from Rep. Eli Crane, R-Ariz., that would prevent the Defense Department from requiring participation in race-based training for hiring, promotions or retention.

Crane argued that Russia and China do not mandate diversity measures in their military operations and neither should the United States. “We don't want our military to be a social experiment,” he said. “We want the best of the best.”

When Crane used the pejorative phrase “colored people” for Black military personnel, Beatty asked for his words to be stricken from the record.

Friday’s voted capped a tumultuous week for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as conservatives essentially drove the agenda, forcing their colleagues to consider their ideas for the annual bill that has been approved by Congress unfailingly since World War II.

“I think he’s doing great because we are moving through — it was like over 1,500 amendments — and we’re moving through them,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. She told reporters she changed her mind to support the bill after McCarthy offered her a seat on the committee that will be negotiating the final version with the Senate.

Democrats, in a joint leadership statement, said they were voting against the bill because Republicans “turned what should be a meaningful investment in our men and women in uniform into an extreme and reckless legislative joyride."

“Extreme MAGA Republicans have chosen to hijack the historically bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act to continue attacking reproductive freedom and jamming their right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people,” said the statement from Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California.

The defense bill authorizes $874.2 billion in the coming year for the defense spending, keeping with President Joe Biden's budget request. The funding itself is to be allocated later, when Congress handles the appropriation bills, as is the normal process.

The package sets policy across the Defense Department, as well as in aspects of the Energy Department, and this year focuses particularly on the U.S. stance toward China, Russia and other national security fronts.

Republican opposition to U.S. support for the war in Ukraine drew a number of amendments, including one to block the use of cluster munitions that Biden just sent to help Ukraine battle Russia. It was a controversial move because the weapons, which can leave behind unexploded munitions endangering civilians, are banned by many other countries.

Most of those efforts to stop U.S. support for Ukraine failed. Proposals to roll back the Pentagon's diversity and inclusion measures and block some medical care for transgender personnel were approved.

GOP Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas, who served as a White House physician, pushed forward the abortion measure that would prohibit the defense secretary from paying for or reimbursing expenses relating to abortion services.

Jackson and other Republicans praised Tuberville for his stand against the Pentagon's abortion policy, which was thrust into prominence as states started banning the procedure after the Supreme Court decision last summer overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade law.

“Now he's got support, he's got back up here in the House,” Jackson said.

But it's not at all certain that the House position will stand as the legislation moves to the Senate, which is preparing its own version of the bill. Senate Democrats have the majority but will need to work with Republicans on a bipartisan measure to ensure enough support for passage in their chamber.

McCarthy lauded the House for gutting “radical programs” that he said distract from the military's purpose.

Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee, led by Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, dropped their support due to the social policy amendments.

Smith, who is white, tried to explain to Crane and other colleagues why the Pentagon's diversity initiatives were important in America, drawing on his own experience as a businessman trying to reach outside his own circle of contacts to be able to hire and gain deeper understanding of other people.

Smith lamented that the bill that the committee passed overwhelmingly "no longer exists. What was once an example of compromise and functioning government has become an ode to bigotry and ignorance.”

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Associated Press writers Farnoush Amiri, Stephen Groves and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.