5 takeaways from the House’s marathon debate on the Pentagon’s policy bill

Expect an amendment to reverse a Pentagon policy that pays for troops’ travel to obtain abortions, which the House Armed Services Committee didn’t consider in its deliberations of the defense policy bill Wednesday.

The wider House debate gives conservatives another chance to chip away at President Joe Biden’s personnel policies they’ve argued politicizes the military and distracts troops from their mission.

The National Defense Authorization Act is typically a bipartisan bill and has passed for 62 years, but every proposal that might win hard-right supporters could repel Democrats and threaten the bill’s chance of passage.

Democrats on Wednesday managed to block some GOP proposals during the markup while losing votes on others — a “good news, bad news” situation for the bill, said Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.).

“There’s a tipping point, but what is it? Because I don’t think we’ve reached it, obviously, today,” said Sherrill, a moderate and Navy veteran. “But what’s going to happen on the floor?

Here are the highlights:

Personnel issues — some wins, some losses

Conservatives notched an early win when the panel earlier adopted without debate Rep. Jim Banks’ (R-Ind.) proposal to suspend the Navy’s “digital ambassador” program, after it made headlines for featuring a sailor who dressed in drag. Before restarting the program, which had prompted criticism from Republican lawmakers in both chambers, the Pentagon would have to provide a detailed report and notification to Congress.

In a similar vein, the Pentagon this month announced it was banning drag shows on military bases, but for good measure last night Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) offered an amendment to block funding for drag shows. House Armed Services voted 33-26 to approve it, with Democratic Reps. Gabe Vasquez (D-N.M.) and Don Davis (D-N.C.) joining Republicans to support the proposal.

The committee adopted a series of GOP amendments from Banks and Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas) aimed at reinstating or otherwise undoing consequences for troops who were booted from the services for refusing the Covid-19 vaccine, arguing that separating personnel for not getting the shot has exacerbated recruiting problems. In each vote, at least one Democrat broke ranks to support the GOP proposals.

Republicans muscled through some limits on DOD’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, though some of the most controversial measures that could have pushed Democrats to oppose the bill were defeated.

The committee adopted, 30-29, an amendment from Gaetz to get rid of the Pentagon’s chief diversity officer position and agreed to another proposal, in a 31-28 party-line vote, from Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) that would bar the promotion of critical race theory among service members.

The panel, however, rejected Gaetz’s amendment to bar funding for diversity, equity and inclusion training. It also sank Rep. Mark Alford’s (R-Mo.) proposal to defund DOD’s deputy inspector general for diversity and extremism in the military. Both were blocked in 29-30 votes, with Republican Reps. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Don Bacon (R-Neb.) siding with Democrats.

Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) was among lawmakers who defended the military’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as on par with mainstream corporate America. He said he’s putting stock that the Democratic-led Senate, which was marking up its version of the bill Thursday behind closed doors, would negotiate out the most divisive House provisions when the bills are reconciled.

“I spoke against and voted against the most extreme amendments. Many of them failed. But we’ve got to take what we were able to get done and hope that the Senate will be able to further protect the bill before it is sent to the president,” Horsford said in an interview. “Taken as a whole, this is a very strong NDAA.”

The abortion debate can wait

The committee didn’t consider an amendment from Republicans challenging the Pentagon’s policy that reimburses troops who travel to seek abortions. An amendment to reverse the policy is likely to appear when the bill heads to the House floor.

Sherrill said she and Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) pushed committee leaders not to vote on the abortion policy and threatened to offer contentious amendments of their own if it was added.

“We were pretty adamant that that could very well kill the bill,” Sherrill said. “And I think had they added the travel restriction in committee, there was a chance that quite a few members were not going to support the NDAA.”

A Ukraine aid fight is coming

The panel adopted an amendment to establish a special inspector general for U.S. aid to Ukraine, from Gaetz, without debate. Skeptics of Ukraine aid in both chambers have offered legislation to create the watchdog position, which appears to be modeled after the special inspector general for Afghanistan.

Gaetz also said he wants a House floor fight on Ukraine aid itself after he withdrew an amendment that banned the authority to send weapons to Ukraine from existing stocks until Congress gets certification that the moves are in full compliance with end-use monitoring.

“I’m going to be filing floor amendments to strip as much of this Ukraine money out of this bill as possible,” he said. “I know if I offered those amendments here they would go down in flames, and I would be on an island, but I assure you it’s where the country is increasingly moving.”

House Armed Services rejected (28-31) Rep. Jared Golden’s (D-Maine) amendment to boost the Pentagon’s account to arm Ukraine by $500 million, raising the total from $300 million to $800 million. Committee Chair Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) opposed it, noting that it would have been paid for by reducing operations and maintenance accounts, which could lower military readiness.

Biden lost another round on nukes

The panel adopted a proposal from Strategic Forces Chair Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) to create a program of record for a naval nuclear cruise missile. The move would transition the weapon, and its warhead, from a research and development category to a status allowing for procurement.

Biden has sought to kill the program, arguing the weapon is redundant with low-yield nukes already aboard submarines, but Congress has kept it alive. Some Democrats joined Republicans last year to authorize $25 million to continue research on the weapon in last year’s bill, bucking the Biden administration’s efforts to cancel it.

Last night, Republicans rebuffed an effort by Seapower ranking Democrat Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) that would allow the requirement for a permanent program to be waived if the Navy concludes deploying missiles aboard attack subs would hurt their conventional mission.

Colorado blinks on Space Command

In the competition to be the permanent home to U.S. Space Command, Alabama lawmakers — including Rogers — used their clout to add provisions to Pentagon spending and policy bills in a bid to cajole the Air Force into finally deciding whether it should stay at its temporary location in Colorado or move to Alabama.

The provision would have frozen funding for construction at the temporary headquarters in Colorado and limited travel funds for the Air Force secretary until a decision is made. Lamborn, whose Colorado district stands to lose the headquarters, made a bid to strip the provision from the defense policy bill.

But Lamborn withdrew the amendment after Rogers assailed the move, with fellow Alabama Reps. Dale Strong (R-Ala.) and Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) — and Ranking Democrat Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

An earlier version of this article misstated Rep. Michael Waltz’s party affiliation. He is a Republican.