The U.S. Capitol building with red tulips.

U.S. Capitol building as seen March 21, 2024. (Gianna Gronowski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Republican-led House on Friday narrowly passed a defense policy bill that tacked on conservative culture war provisions to a bipartisan effort to improve quality of life for service members.

The vote fell largely along party lines, 217-199, and followed days of heated debate over the $895 billion Servicemember Quality of Life Improvement and National Defense Authorization Act, an annual must-pass bill that this year named the well-being of troops as a top focus.

The House Armed Services Committee had sent the legislation to the full House with nearly unanimous bipartisan approval but backing for the bill from Democrats fell away as Republicans added amendments targeting abortion access for troops and other controversial social policies.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was also set to release its draft of the defense authorization bill on Friday. A final version is negotiated by both chambers of Congress and typically passed before the end of the year.

In the House version of the legislation, Republicans successfully voted to block the Defense Department from reimbursing travel costs for service members and dependents who need to cross state lines to obtain an abortion or other reproductive health care — a red line for many Democrats.

Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas, introduced the amendment and argued the Pentagon policy violated laws that prevent taxpayer dollars from being used for abortions. The Justice Department has upheld the legality of the policy.

“Under stretched [Defense Department] resources already, to underwrite abortions through funding for flights and hotels is simply pandering to the abortion lobby and does nothing to increase our national security,” Van Duyne said.

Another amendment prevents the military’s health care program – known as Tricare – from covering gender-transition surgeries and hormone therapies for transgender troops. Republicans also voted to eliminate all diversity, equity and inclusion offices in the military and institute a permanent hiring freeze for DEI jobs.

“The adoption of poison pill amendments attacking reproductive health care, women, LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color undermines the purpose of the defense bill by demeaning service members and degrading our national security,” top Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee said in a statement.

The scene on the House floor was a repeat of last year, when Republicans loaded up the bill with right-wing riders that “killed bipartisan support for the NDAA for the first time in decades,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa. All were ultimately removed from the final version of the bill.

Republicans also pushed through amendments banning mask mandates on military installations, defunding the U.S. humanitarian aid pier off the coast of Gaza and blocking President Joe Biden’s executive orders to combat climate change.

Other amendments pitched by Republicans fell flat. An attempt to block funding for NATO activities until each member nation reaches the alliance’s target spending benchmark was soundly defeated. Lawmakers also shot down a proposal to restore a Confederate monument to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Members of both parties easily found common ground on a slew of quality-of-life provisions that underpin the defense authorization bill.

The legislation calls for a 4.5% pay raise for service members as well as an additional 15% pay bump for junior enlisted troops ranked E-4 and below. The nearly 20% pay raise for the military’s youngest service members does not have the support of the White House or the Senate, which is proposing a 5.5% pay increase instead.

The bill also contains provisions for improving housing and food allowances, health care, military spouse support and child care. All are key issues that affect satisfaction with life in the military and impact military recruiting, lawmakers said.

The legislation reduces wait times for health care by waiving referral requirements for specialists and provides new authorities to expand the number of Defense Department doctors and nurses.

It makes it easier for military spouses to transfer professional licenses between states and gives the Pentagon the authority to hire and retain spouses quickly during changes in duty stations.

The bill also authorizes $206 million to build new child care centers and exceeds the White House’s request for construction by $766 million to improve aging barracks and build new ones.

“We are making these historic improvements in the quality of life for our service members because now, more than ever, we need to recruit and retain the best and the brightest,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Twitter: @svetashko

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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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