By John Haughey
The House has adopted its version of the proposed $886.3 billion Fiscal Year 2024 defense budget and dispatched it to the Senate, where many of the “culture war” amendments conservatives successfully attached to the must-pass annual appropriations package are likely to be rejected by the Democrat-led chamber.
Do so at your own risk, House Freedom Caucus members and associated Republicans warned after the chamber’s defense budget was adopted in a 219–210 mostly partisan vote on July 14.
Over the span of two days, the Republican-led House repealed the Department of Defense’s (DOD) abortion travel policy, prohibited DOD healthcare programs from providing gender transition procedures, adopted a DOD ‘Parents Bill of Rights,’ and introduced a host of other proposed add-ons targeting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs to a must-pass defense budget normally approved in bipartisan accord.
“Business as usual is over with, and I hope senators would join us in holding up the ‘woke’ unbelievable, crazy agenda” the Biden administration has imposed on the military, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) told reporters in a press conference. Mr. Norman is a member of the 40-member House Freedom Caucus that spearheaded the drive to rid “wokeism” from the Pentagon.
“The wait is over with folks,” he concluded. “It’s about one word—‘freedom.’”
Democrats: It Ain’t Over Yet
The Senate, where Democrats hold a 51–49 advantage, will begin floor deliberations next week on their version of the defense budget, referred to as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Both chambers’ preliminary defense spending plans top out at the $886.3 billion requested in March by the Biden administration, but the Senate NDAA version does not include the House amendments targeting “woke” policies.
Differences between the adopted House defense budget and the version the Senate will approve will be resolved in conferences between the chambers to present one NDAA for adoption, ideally before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
How those differences are ironed out and how many of the GOP’s “culture war” amendments will be in that merged NDAA when it next appears on the House floor will be a closely watched backroom battle between the chambers.
House Democrats will continue to resist a “woefully irresponsible” defense budget more geared to imposing a “right-wing agenda” on the nation than helping the Pentagon gird for the military challenges presented by China, Russia, and other adversaries, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said during a post-vote press conference.
“Extreme MAGA Republicans have hijacked a bipartisan bill that is essential to our national security and taken it over and weaponized it in order to jam their extreme right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people,” Mr. Jeffries said, calling on Senate Democrats to shoot down the “culture war” add-ons and send a defense budget back to the House free of “MAGA extremism.”
“We have to pass the National Defense Authorization Act in order to make sure that our military, the greatest military, in my view, in the history of the world, has everything that it needs to protect the safety and security of the American people,” he said. “We, as Democrats, look forward to working with President Biden, Senate Democrats, and Senate Republicans to do the responsible thing by the end of this fiscal year and pass a responsible National Defense Authorization Act.”
Tuberville the Inspiration
One of the amendments Republicans are unlikely to back down on is Rep. Ronny Jackson’s (R-Texas) add-on that repeals a DOD policy instituted in October 2022 to reimburse expenses for service members who travel to obtain an abortion from a state where the procedure is restricted to a state where it is permitted.
The measure, adopted in a near-total partisan vote, 221-213, is among signal achievements cited by House Freedom Caucus members and Mr. Jackson, who argued the policy is in direct violation of Section 1093 of U.S. Code Title 10, which “restricts funds made available to the DOD from being used for abortions.”
House conservatives also said they were inspired to continue pushing for the measure despite heated opposition by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who has blocked more than 250 flag-level Pentagon promotions in protest of the policy.
“We joined our colleague Tommy Tuberville in the Senate, who stood strong for a long time by himself … to fight this fight,” Mr. Jackson said during a pre-vote House Freedom Caucus press conference. “And now he’s got support. He’s got back-up here in the House” to ensure “taxpayer money is provided to the DOD to provide for our national defense and international security, not to promote and support the Biden administration’s radical immoral pro-abortion agenda.”
“The conservative movement is getting fired up everywhere,” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) told reporters. “We dealt a major blow to the Biden regime’s efforts to politicize our military by defunding his policy of using DOD funds to traffic service members out of red states so they can receive taxpayer-funded abortions.
“We have a ban on funding for drag queen shows,” Ms. Boebert continued, “a ban on funding for critical race theory, abolishing the DOD chief diversity officer position, and powering military parents to know what’s going on in on-base schools, establishing an inspector general to audit Ukraine funding, establishing a pathway for service members discharged under Biden’s vaccine mandate to rejoin the military. We’re here today to let the American people know that we are just getting started.”
House Majority Leader Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) called it “a shame” that 207 of 211 House Democrats voted against the proposed NDAA, as did four of the chamber’s 221 Republicans.
“It’s a shame that Democrats walked away from a 5 percent pay raise to our men and women in uniform—who deserve it—because they wanted to defend a far-left ‘woke’ indoctrination ideology,” Mr. Scalise told reporters. “I am proud of what our members did coming together in a difficult time to say, let’s get that focus back where it needs to be on defending America and protecting our friends around the world and standing up to the bad actors, which there are, and they’re getting more and more aggressive. We need to be more and more focused. That’s what today’s vote produced.”
Moderates in the Middle
Democrats said they will continue lobbying against the amendments and believe public opinion is on their side.
“What could have been a substantive, forward-looking piece of legislation has instead become a Frankenstein’s monster of far-right bigotry laced with racism and fear-mongering,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told reporters after the vote, calling the adopted version of the NDAA “sad for the country.”
“I think it’s a compilation of horrors,” he said. “Every right-wing fantasy made its way into this bill—fantasies about abortion, abortion language, racial diversity language, you know, homophobia. And that has consequences for the country. That’s no way to govern. Shame on the majority for allowing it.”
“Hopefully, the Senate helps fix these flaws so that we can actually have a bill that the vast majority of Americans support, because this isn’t it,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) told reporters. “The provisions with regard to restricting abortion have no place in this bill. I think that the kind of gratuitous provisions with regard to DEI and transgender individuals—the American people do not want to address this in a defense bill. And not only that, they’re wrong. We can’t pass legislation like this.”
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) is among self-described Republican moderates who are often critical of GOP leadership and the House Freedom Caucus. She is among Republicans in swing districts who will have to answer to Democrats—and need their votes—to be reelected.
She said she voted for repealing the DOD’s abortion policy because it was only adopted last October in the wake of June’s Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.
“We had never reimbursed for travel for elective surgeries before, so I wanted to be consistent with that policy,” Ms. Mace said, although she didn’t particularly like Jackson’s amendment.
While conservatives are celebrating an NDAA larded with “wins” while warning the Senate that their adopted defense budget reflects the majority will of the American people, Ms. Mace kicked a warning back to her GOP colleagues.
“As a woman, as a suburban mom, as a girl mom, I am very frustrated with the lack of our ability to get things done for women after overturning Roe v. Wade. We’ve had several different abortion bills and amendments” that she said diminish women, which could come back to haunt the party
“I’m pro-life,” Ms. Mace said, “but I also am pro-woman.”
She said there are 14 states, including South Carolina, “that don’t have a single OB-GYN doctor, that are banning abortion. What are we doing to make sure that women who don’t have access to abortions want to give their babies up for adoption? Where are the resources and ability to do that? What are we doing to help women that need prenatal care? What about the women who’ve had abortions and assisting them and getting them maybe mental health counseling?”
Ms. Mace said Democrats are going to use the House NDAA in currying support from women and that it is going to be a difficult perception for the GOP to counter during the 2024 elections.
“We’ve had opportunities to show women we care, and we haven’t been able to,” she said. “And that, to me, is frustrating as a woman.”
Jackson Richman contributed to this story.