The U.S. Capitol seen through a window of the Cannon House Office Building.

The U.S. Capitol seen through a window of the Cannon House Office Building. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved a defense spending bill that funds a 19.5% pay raise for junior enlisted service members and includes divisive social policy riders, defying the White House and Democrats.

In a 34-25 vote, the committee advanced legislation that will allocate $833 billion to the Defense Department in fiscal 2025 while also eliminating funding for diversity and inclusion programs, gender-affirming health care and abortion access for troops in states that ban or limit the procedure.

Republicans said the bill refocuses the Pentagon on its core war-fighting mission amid competition with China and removes spending on social agendas that do not align with the Defense Department’s primary purpose. The legislation cuts $18 billion from the White House budget request for defense, including $621 million from climate change initiatives and $53 billion from diversity efforts.

“We will not be giving out blank checks,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif. “In short, this bill procures where we can, trains where we must and invests in capability that will make Chinese leaders wake up every day and say, ‘Today is not the day to provoke the United States of America.’ ”

Democrats blasted the legislation for discriminating against women and minorities and said the “inhumane and contemptible” culture-war provisions would hinder military recruiting. An attempt by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., to add an amendment removing the measures from the bill was unsuccessful.

“It is shameful that this bill contains a laundry list of partisan proposals that divide Americans, including provisions that hurt women and LGBTQ+ service members and obstruct efforts to welcome Americans of all backgrounds into our armed forces,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the committee.

She accused Republicans of using the legislation to further their goal of instituting a national ban on abortion. The Pentagon currently provides time off and travel reimbursement for women who need to travel to obtain reproductive health care. The policy was instituted after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in 2022.

Democrats and Republicans also clashed over a much-talked-about proposal to give junior enlisted troops a 15% pay raise on top of a 4.5% pay increase the White House requested for all service members.

A bipartisan panel convened by the House Armed Services Committee recommended the additional pay bump for ranks E-4 and below as a critical part of improving the quality of life for service members and helping the military remain competitive with the civilian labor market.

The White House on Tuesday said it strongly opposed implementing the measure before the Pentagon’s completion of a quadrennial compensation review. McCollum, the top Democrat on the committee’s defense subpanel, added her voice to the opposition on Thursday.

She argued the total pay for junior troops, when accounting for other compensation such as housing allowances and free health care, amounted to $50,000 per year and was generous compared to the private sector. She also said the proposal would create an “odd disparity” where promotions do not come with as high of a pay raise.

The White House estimated the pay increases would cost $3.3 billion in fiscal 2025 and more than $22 billion from 2025 to 2029. McCollum said Republicans failed to adequately fund the raises in their bill, falling short by $800 million.

“The services are going to be forced to fill that hole themselves by making decisions to cut elsewhere and where will those cuts come from? From the upkeep and restoration of barracks? For support for child care? From service modernization priorities?” she asked. “We don’t know what’s going to be sacrificed and for me, that’s the problem.”

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., disputed McCollum’s arguments, pointing out that pay for the lowest junior rank starts at $24,200 per year. He also said housing allowances do not fully cover the cost of rents and mortgages.

“Literally a third of our troops right now qualify for food stamps, so I’m committed to keep fighting this fight until we get it right,” he said. “The fact that the commander in chief is threatening to veto our bills because of these pay raises, to me, is frankly offensive to our enlisted troops. We should all get on board for the big win for this one, and I applaud the majority in this case for trying to figure out how to do it rather than trying to figure out why we can’t do it and avoiding this issue.”

An effort by House Republicans last year to give junior enlisted service members a 30% pay hike failed during negotiations on a final spending bill with the Democrat-led Senate. The compromise legislation also stripped the controversial culture war issues that Republicans reinserted into this year’s bill.

Democrats vowed Thursday to again scrub partisan measures from the final version of the legislation. They also rallied around an attempt to reinstate $300 million for an annual training and weapons procurement program for Ukraine, though it was ultimately shot down by the full committee.

The bill now moves to the full House for consideration. The Senate has yet to unveil its funding plans for the Defense Department.

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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.

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