House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is facing pressure this week from conservative members of his party to load up a must-pass defense bill with provisions that would strip Biden-era personnel policies out of the military, a move that could threaten Democratic support and tank the bill in a closely divided House.
The $886 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which has been passed by Congress every year for the last six decades, authorizes pay for troops in harm’s way and outlines the policy agenda for the Department of Defense. But lawmakers on McCarthy’s far-right flank are pushing to use floor amendments to rein in Pentagon policies on diversity, abortion, and climate change, which they say distracts the military from its main mission.
The controversy over the defense authorization bill is just the latest example of the many challenges McCarthy has faced in his leadership role as he tries to ward off a conservative revolt and pass legislation with only GOP votes. Republicans have a razor-thin, four-vote majority in the House, meaning that McCarthy will likely need bipartisan support to pass the defense bill.
The House Rules Committee is scheduled to mark up the defense authorization bill on Tuesday, with a floor vote expected later this week. A record 1,502 amendments were filed, highlighting the intensity of the demands from members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus even after House GOP leadership staffers huddled with lawmakers over the last few days in an attempt to cut back the number of amendments.
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The conservative pushback is centered around a number of issues, including the Pentagon’s policy to cover travel costs and allow leave for troops seeking abortions, eliminating the Pentagon’s chief diversity officer post, prohibiting gender affirming surgeries and treatments, and banning the Department of Defense from having “pornographic and racial gender ideology” books in their libraries. Additional amendments would create a special watchdog for Ukraine assistance and stop President Joe Biden’s cluster munition transfer to Ukraine, offering a potential referendum among members of Congress on the President’s handling of the war.
“These cluster bombs will not end the war in Ukraine and will not build a more stable country. Children will be left without limbs and without parents because of this decision if we do not work together in a bipartisan fashion to stop it,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, tweeted Monday.
For McCarthy, the dilemma underscores the balance he must strike between lawmakers on the far-right and the Democrats he will ultimately need for the bill to become law. The bill must eventually pass a Democratic-led Senate and earn Biden’s signature, though neither is likely if McCarthy caters to the culture-war issues.
Rep. Jennifer McClellan, a Virginia Democrat and member of the House Armed Services Committee, told TIME that she will not support the bill if McCarthy gives in to the far-right of his party, particularly over provisions to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives or critical race theory instruction in Department of Defense schools. “I am deeply concerned with the extreme right-wing amendments MAGA House Republicans are demanding,” McClellan says. “If the final version of the bill is loaded down with amendments that restrict reproductive health care, demonize LGBTQ+ service members, stoke culture wars, and undermine efforts to make the military a more inclusive environment, it will be difficult to support it on the floor.”
More Democrats are expected to join McClellan in opposition to the bill if the amendments make it through the Rules Committee. On Tuesday, the New Dem Coalition, which is composed of 98 center-left House Democrats, called on McCarthy to reject the demands from the far-right and instead work across the aisle to pass the bill.
Even some Republicans are concerned about the future of the bill. Rep. Jen Kiggans, a Virginia Republican, suggested on Monday that she would encourage her colleagues to put aside the controversial amendments to avoid derailing the defense bill. “We need to get the NDAA passed,” Kiggans, a former Navy helicopter pilot, told reporters. “It’s not something to ever put at risk.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican and the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that the defense bill “puts our national security first” and would supply the military with the tools “necessary to counter the unprecedented threats our nation faces from China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran.”
“Providing for our national defense is the most important task given to Congress by the U.S. Constitution,” Rogers said. “The NDAA is a critical part of fulfilling that duty.”
While the future of the bill is uncertain, McCarthy will be watching closely to see how the House Rules Committee votes on the various amendments. Republicans can only afford to lose two votes on the committee on a party-line vote, and McCarthy named three hard-right conservatives to the rules panel as a concession during his marathon 15-round fight for the gavel: Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, and Chip Roy of Texas. All three voted against the annual defense policy bill in the past, and they could sink the bill if they vote in lockstep on Tuesday.
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