House passes Pentagon spending bill stripped of Ukraine aid and full of controversial social provisions
Stars and Stripes September 29, 2023
WASHINGTON — The House narrowly approved a defense spending bill Thursday stripped of aid for Ukraine and loaded with controversial provisions that include restricting abortion access for troops and slashing pay for the defense secretary to $1.
The vote, 218-210, followed weeks of infighting among Republicans that twice derailed the $826 billion Pentagon appropriations legislation and forced leadership to move $300 million for arming and training the Ukrainian military into a separate bill.
The pared-down legislation won over hard-right Republicans who had refused to support any additional aid for Ukraine in its war against Russia but its passage will do nothing to avert a government shutdown on Saturday. The House on Thursday approved the Ukraine aid separately in a 311-117 vote.
Both bills likely will fail to gain traction in the Democrat-led Senate, which avoided contentious social issues in its bipartisan drafting of the Pentagon’s fiscal 2024 budget that included Ukraine aid in the legislation.
House Republicans touted their bill as a bulwark against liberal ideology that they believe is permeating the military and said their legislation will restore the Defense Department’s focus “to warfighting rather than social engineering.”
“This bill, combined with the amendments that were made in order, takes significant steps to invest in resources that will help deter China, will cut the bureaucracy, will support military families and service members,” said Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, a member of the House’s far-right Freedom Caucus.
Democrats and the White House argued the partisan legislation will worsen the military’s recruitment crisis and harm service members, particularly minorities.
President Joe Biden earlier this month threatened to veto legislation that guts the Pentagon’s diversity programs, restricts gender-affirming care for transgender troops and rescinds a Pentagon policy providing leave and travel reimbursement for service members seeking abortions and other reproductive health care.
Republicans this week tacked on amendments onto the defense bill that cut the salaries of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Pentagon employees who lead diversity programs to $1. Other measures bar the Pentagon from implementing Biden’s climate-change initiatives and requiring service members to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
On Wednesday night, Republicans decided to remove Ukraine aid from the bill though the House just hours before had overwhelmingly voted to keep it in the legislation. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chairman of the House Rules Committee, acknowledged the separation would help shore up Republican support for the Pentagon legislation.
“Shifting these funds out of the defense appropriations process and into a separate bill allows those members for whom there is a question of conscience to vote to support our troops through an otherwise robust defense appropriations bill,” he said.
The Ukraine bill also creates a special inspector general to ensure “American dollars going to Ukraine receive appropriate oversight and supervision,” Cole said.
The Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a program that gives the Pentagon money to purchase weapons for Ukraine and train its service members, has been part of the Pentagon spending bill since 2015. Its removal on Thursday provoked fury from Democrats, who said the move handed a victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The Russians are good at propaganda,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “It will be played as America backing off of its commitment for Ukraine.”
Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, described the political maneuvering as “one of the most crooked things I’ve ever seen in my years here.”
Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House defense appropriations subcommittee, vowed to reinstate Ukraine funding into the Pentagon bill in negotiations with the Senate.
Republicans in the House are showing increased opposition to helping Ukraine, arguing the U.S. should instead direct its funds and attention to securing the border with Mexico. About 100 Republicans voted against continued assistance to Ukraine this week, significantly more than several months ago.
The votes followed personal appeals for support last week by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who visited Capitol Hill in hopes of persuading Congress to pass a $24 billion Ukraine aid package that the White House requested in August.
Republican resistance is expected to complicate that effort. It is also hobbling negotiations over a stopgap funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, that would give lawmakers time to approve full-year spending bills and prevent a shutdown. Some senators want to include a portion of the $24 billion Ukraine aid in the resolution.
The White House said this week that a shutdown, which appears almost certain, would undermine national security and delay pay for 1.3 million active-duty troops, including some 171,000 service members stationed overseas.