The U.S. Capitol is seen Thursday, July 13, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Capitol is seen Thursday, July 13, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Republican-led House narrowly approved a $886 billion defense policy bill Friday that restricts service member access to abortions, blocks transgender transition care and limits diversity training, endorsing a conservative agenda for the military over the objections of many Democrats.

The National Defense Authorization Act passed 219-210 with near total Democratic opposition after right-wing Republicans loaded the annual, typically bipartisan bill with amendments designed to remove policies targeting race, gender and other "woke" social justice issues from the Pentagon.

The legislation notably undoes a Defense Department policy providing leave and travel reimbursement for troops who need to go to another state for reproductive health care services, including abortions. It also prevents the military health plan from covering gender-transition surgeries or gender-affirming hormone therapy and strips funding from the Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

“Today was an important victory for our men and women in uniform who risk their lives to keep us safe. It was also an important victory for every American in this country that wants to see our military focused on our enemies abroad, not on wokeness and all of the indoctrination attempts you're seeing within the Pentagon," said House Majority Leader Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. "It was a massive rebuke of that far-left ideology and the push that we've seen under the Biden administration."

Another conservative amendment bans the flying of unapproved flags, such as the pride flag, at federal facilities.

Top Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee said they refused to vote for a bill that had become an “ode to bigotry and ignorance.”

“Attacks on reproductive rights, access to basic health care, and efforts to address our country’s history of racism and marginalization of huge swaths of our country will worsen our recruitment and retention crisis, make our military less capable, and do grievous harm to our national defense and national security,” the lawmakers said in a statement.

The draft of the bill approved by the committee last month featured some conservative priorities, including a ban on drag shows at military installations and the teaching of critical race theory as well as the elimination of the Pentagon’s chief diversity officer position. But the measure still garnered the support of almost the entire bipartisan panel and passed nearly unanimously.

When the legislation hit the House floor and ballooned with items from conservative Republicans, however, Democrats began abandoning the bill.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, a member of the Armed Services committee, criticized the reversal of the abortion policy as a “backdoor effort to create a national abortion ban.” Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., who is a former Navy helicopter pilot, said the provision “puts service women and military families’ lives at risk” by preventing them from traveling to states where abortion is still legal.

Republicans argued the move rescinds an illegal policy that violates a prohibition against taxpayer-funded abortions. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has held up the promotion of hundreds of military officers for months in protest of the policy.

Not all Republican proposals made the cut. The House soundly defeated two amendments aimed at denying training and security assistance to Ukraine as it battles Russia’s invasion.

The bitter battle over culture war issues hijacked a traditionally bipartisan process that shapes Pentagon policy and aims to better the lives of service members.

Troops are set to receive a 5.2% pay hike, the largest in decades, under the bill while financially struggling junior troops with ranks of E-6 and lower will be eligible for new monthly bonuses.

Another measure meant to combat the rising cost of living excludes housing allowances from calculations of household incomes so that more service members can qualify for a basic needs stipend.

The bill also seeks to improve affordable access to child care and health care and expand education benefits.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the bill makes significant strides in addressing quality-of-life issues but lawmakers will try to go even further next year.

The committee last month set up a new panel to examine pay, housing, health, spousal employment, child care and other personnel concerns and ultimately provide recommendations for next year’s NDAA.

“You’re going to see big leaps in next year’s bill and they’re going to be thoughtful,” Rogers said. “We want it to be comprehensive, we want people to see a career in the military as a career worth spending their life on, not just the service member but we want their family and children to feel valued too.”

This year’s bill strives to prepare troops and the armed services for a world altered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing military dominance.

Lawmakers are authorizing $9 billion to shore up the Pentagon’s deterrence initiative in the Indo-Pacific region and investing billions of dollars into precision missiles, technology such as hypersonics and artificial intelligence, and warships.

Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., said the bill instills “accountability” for the Navy as it shrinks to less than 300 ships while China’s fleet nears 500. The House is authorizing the procurement of nine battle force ships and preventing the Navy from retiring three amphibious ships and two cruisers.

The House is also using its version of the defense bill to push again for the creation of a Space National Guard, though efforts in prior years to include the provision in the final version of the legislation have failed.

The lower chamber must reconcile its bill with the Democrat-led Senate before it is sent to President Joe Biden for his signature into law. The Senate will take up its version of the legislation next week but is unlikely to support many of the conservative provisions in the House measure.

Twitter: @svetashko

author picture
Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now