House Passes ‘Anti-Woke’ Defense Bill, Setting Up Clash With the Senate

House Passes ‘Anti-Woke’ Defense Bill, Setting Up Clash With the Senate

Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Speaker Kevin McCarthy and far-right Republicans won a close victory Friday as the House passed an $886 billion annual defense policy bill larded with amendments that touch on divisive cultural issues including abortion access and gender-affirming surgery.

The House version of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act passed 219-210, largely along party lines. Four Republicans voted against the bill and four Democrats voted for it. The House version of the legislation is expected to be doomed in the Senate, where the “anti-woke” amendments stand little chance of gaining approval. This sets up a clash over the must-pass defense bill that could consume increasingly scarce time in a Congress that also needs to pass a dozen funding bills to keep the government operating after the fiscal year ends in September.

The battle continues: The heavily partisan vote marks the end of six decades of bipartisan support for the defense bill, The Washington Post’s Abigail Hauslohner and Paul Kane noted Friday. Punchbowl’s John Bresnahan said that McCarthy’s alliance with hardline conservatives turned “the normally bipartisan annual defense authorization bill into a culture war battlefield.”

The White House indicated that President Biden would not sign the bill in its current state. “It's very difficult to see the president supporting legislation that would make it harder for Americans to serve in uniform, and to not be able to do so with dignity, would not be able to do so with the proper care that they need both medical and mental care,” National Security Council coordinator John Kirby told CNN. “It's very difficult to see that the president would ever, ever sign legislation that would put our troops at greater risk or put our readiness at risk.”

Republicans defended their bill, saying they were battling to rid the military of what they see as “woke” policies that focus on gender, race and sexuality. “Anything that detracts from the mission, which is to protect our nation and make us the most effective fighting force on earth, is a distraction and a waste of money,” Montana Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale tweeted. “And that includes rainbow bullets on a helmet!”

Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy elaborated on the GOP approach. “It is core and fundamental to defense that we stop making the Defense Department a social engineering experiment wrapped in a uniform,” he said on the House floor Thursday. “The American people I’ve talked to back home don’t want a weak military; they don’t want a woke military; they don’t want rainbow propaganda on bases; they don’t want to pay for troops’ sex changes.”

Perhaps the most divisive addition to the bill was an amendment that would ban the reimbursement of expenses for service members who travel out of state to receive abortions and related medical care. Democrats warned that such a ban would make it very difficult if not impossible for them to support the bill.

Some amendments pushed by hardliners failed to pass through the committee process and so were not included in the bill that passed the House. An amendment from Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene that would have rescinded $300 million in military aid for Ukraine was not in the final bill, nor was a provision from Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Good that would have allowed the Defense Department to continue to use the names of Confederate generals on military bases.

An earlier version of the bill, without the controversial amendments, passed out of committee with broad bipartisan support, but that spirit of bipartisanship evaporated after Republican hardliners made their changes to the bill.

“Extreme MAGA Republicans have chosen to hijack the historically bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act to continue attacking reproductive freedom and jamming their right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people,” House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Democratic whip Katherine Clark and caucus chair Pete Aguilar said in a statement. “House Republicans have turned what should be a meaningful investment in our men and women in uniform into an extreme and reckless legislative joyride.”

Rep. Adam Smith, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee who backed the earlier version of the bill, slammed the amended version for its “an agenda rooted in racism, misogyny, bigotry, ignorance, and hatred.”

What comes next: The Senate needs to pass its own version of the NDAA, which is expected to be similar to the House bill before the controversial amendments were added.

Some Republicans recognized that their victory was likely to be short-lived. “I think it’ll probably be a totally different bill when we get it back later this year,” Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina said. “I don’t know what [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer will do, but I can’t imagine that he’ll go along with all of the amendments that were attached to the NDAA this week.”

That message, however, did not resonate with House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania. “We are not going to relent, we are not going to back down, we’re not going to give up on the cause that is righteous,” he told reporters. Perry pledged “to use every single tool at our disposal” to defend the hardline amendments to the bill, calling them “a huge victory.”

McCarthy has suggested that he wants the House and Senate to hash out a compromise – with a team from the House that includes Greene, who pledged to fight for the removal of Ukraine aid – but there’s a chance that, given the shortage of time, he may simply bring the Senate version up for a vote in the House.

That should enable him to win back Democratic support and pass the defense policy bill on a bipartisan basis – but it would also risk sparking a rebellion by far-right Republicans that could cost him his speakership.