Jul 13, 2023 - Politics & Policy

House tees up “poison” votes on must-pass defense spending bill

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images.

House Republicans are preparing for a precarious tightrope walk on a must-pass defense bill as they try to balance hardliners demands for controversial amendment votes with a narrow margin for error.

Why it matters: It doesn’t just put passage of the defense legislation in jeopardy – it also highlights the difficult dynamic the House will face in just a few months in trying to avert a government shutdown.

Driving the news: The House Rules Committee voted early Thursday morning to allow floor votes on a raft of right-wing amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act on hot button social issues.

They include:

  • Blocking a Pentagon policy reimbursing service members who travel out of state to seek an abortion.
  • Prohibiting the Pentagon or military health care programs from providing gender affirming care to transgender service members.
  • Removing $300 million in aid to Ukraine from the bill and prohibiting military assistance to the country.
  • Eliminating any military diversity, equity and inclusion programs or training.
  • Blocking the Pentagon from enforcing President Biden’s climate change executive orders.
  • Prohibiting mask mandates at military bases or punishment for refusing the COVID vaccine.

The state of play: Many of these amendments could zero out potential Democratic support for the bill.

  • “It’s very simple,” one senior House Democrat told Axios. “Such pills will poison America’s national defense capabilities by stalling the NDAA.“
  • That would leave House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who attempted to fend off these votes, to try to pass the bill along party lines with just a 10-seat majority.

Between the lines: Some conservatives, including McCarthy-aligned Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), threatened to block the bill on a procedural vote if they didn't get their desired amendment votes.

  • That would have been a repeat of the embarrassing episode for McCarthy when hardliners ground the House floor to a halt in protest of his debt ceiling deal with Democrats.

What we’re watching: All eyes are on moderate and swing-district Republicans, some of whom have expressed hesitance about bogging the bill down with culture-focused amendments.

  • Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.) told Axios “these social amendments don’t belong in the NDAA,” adding that “there’s a concern” about final passage of the bill if any make it through.
  • “I do have concerns about some of the amendments that may be coming through,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said on Wednesday.
  • “The amendments which would cause the NDAA to fail put our military’s lethality at risk and should be debated outside of the NDAA,” said Rep. Nick LaLota (R-N.Y.).
  • Some also have more specific objections. “I don’t support the radical DEI agenda, but to say we should defund ALL diversity training isn’t smart,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.). “We can’t throw the baby out with the dirty bath water.”

Reality check: Even if the bill passes with the hardliners’ amendments, it would still need to make its way past Senate Democrats and President Biden.

  • Bacon said some amendments may pass “initially,” but, just as when Democrats controlled the House and Republicans the Senate, “by the time the process works we’ll have bipartisan bill.”
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