Lawmakers drop abortion access ban, other conservative priorities from defense bill
Stars and Stripes December 7, 2023
WASHINGTON — The final version of a must-pass defense policy bill will not include a Republican proposal to rescind a Pentagon abortion access policy and will scrap other controversial measures pushed by conservatives.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled the compromise $886 billion National Defense Authorization Act this week after months of debate over the starkly different versions of the legislation passed by the Republican-led House and the Democrat-led Senate earlier this year.
The result removes the most divisive social issues targeted by House Republicans in a bill that sets annual policy for the Pentagon, including a ban on the coverage of transition surgeries and hormone treatments for transgender troops and a severe curtailing of diversity programs.
“Through months of hard-fought and productive negotiations, we have crafted a bipartisan and bicameral conference report that strengthens our national security and supports our service members,” the leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services committees said in a statement Thursday.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., one of the members of the negotiating group, lashed out against the bill on X, formerly Twitter, and said House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., had caved to Democrats.
“This was a total sell-out of conservative principles and a huge win for Democrats,” she wrote. “Congratulations to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, you should all be excited to vote for this! I’m a HELL NO!”
She also blasted Democrats for removing a provision that would have given basic pay increases to junior enlisted members. The White House opposed providing the raises until a quadrennial review of military compensation is completed.
Troops are set to receive a 5.2% pay raise in January, their largest in 22 years, under the final legislation.
Republicans did score some victories in the compromise bill, retaining their ban on the endorsement of critical race theory in the military as well as a salary cap and hiring freeze for Pentagon employees working on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
They also successfully included language encouraging the service branches to allow the reenlistment of troops who had been booted from the military solely for refusing the coronavirus vaccine.
But a priority for conservatives — the end of a Pentagon policy giving service members time off and travel reimbursement for reproductive health care — failed to make the cut. Democrats called it a red line, with the Senate sidestepping the issue of abortion in its version of the defense bill.
The policy became a major source of tension on Capitol Hill this year after Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., said he would protest it by blocking senior military promotions. He ended his 10-month hold on more than 400 officer nominees this week amid mounting criticism from defense officials and pressure from his own party.
The hold remains in place for about a dozen four-star generals and admirals. A handful of nominees are also being held by Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., who said he had concerns about their stances on diversity initiatives.
“Sen. Schmitt has long been an advocate for eradicating these DEI programs and hopes to resolve these issues to ensure that these divisive DEI programs don’t continue to drive a wedge between military members and deepen the already existing recruiting crisis,” said Will O’Grady, Schmitt’s press secretary.
The affected nominees include Air Force Lt. Gen. Kevin B. Schneider, who is already being held by Tuberville, as well as Rear Adm. Shoshana S. Chatfield, Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul D. Moga, Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott A. Cain, Air Force Col. Benjamin R. Jonsson and Army Col. Andrew O. Saslav.
Chatfield, who is nominated for promotion to vice admiral and an assignment as the U.S. military representative to NATO, was singled out Monday by the conservative opposition research group American Accountability Foundation for pointing out that most congressional seats are held by men.
Right-wing Republicans have long railed against efforts by the Pentagon to make the military more inclusive and diverse, arguing they distracted from the war-fighting mission.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday that the upper chamber will vote on the final version of the defense bill early next week. The House will then follow and if the legislation is approved, as it has been for the past 60 years, it will be sent to President Joe Biden for his signature into law.