McCarthy is already working intensely to avoid possible conservative defections. His whip team spent Thursday morning trying to smooth over internal spats, meeting with about a half-dozen conservatives — mostly House Freedom Caucus members — who have concerns about the bill, trying to gauge what needs to be done to earn their support.
Abortion isn’t the only tough debate Republicans will wade into on the sweeping Pentagon bill. The House is tackling issues related to race, climate change and transgender troops in the latest round of votes coming.
The House also adopted Rep. Matt Rosendale’s (R-Mont.) proposal to end coverage of transition surgeries and hormone treatments for transgender troops in a 222-211 vote.
But Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) proposal to slash $300 million in military assistance from the bill was easily rejected with strong support from Democrats and Republicans.
Jackson and other conservatives ripped the abortion policy as skirting federal laws that bar taxpayer funds for most abortions, even though the government would not be paying for the procedure itself.
“Taxpayer money is going directly to support abortions and anyone in this chamber who says differently is blatantly lying to the American people,” Jackson said. “Taxpayer funding of travel for an abortion is in fact taxpayer-funded abortion.”
A cavalcade of Democrats shot back that Jackson’s measure would hurt female troops’ access to health care and is a precursor to an attempt to ban abortion at the federal level after the protections of Roe v. Wade were overturned last year.
“They are putting culture wars ahead of national security,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) said. She added Republicans “will not stop until there is a federal ban” on abortion.
The House cleared a rule Thursday and opened debate on another 80 amendments, overwhelmingly from Republicans, that take on Biden-era personnel policies that the GOP contends distract from the Pentagon’s primary mission of fighting wars. That comes on top of the largely uncontroversial 289 amendments lawmakers considered on Wednesday.
If McCarthy can keep his party together, the bill could pass the House this week as leaders originally planned, after some Republicans wondered whether the impasse would stall the legislation.
But conservatives are still making leadership sweat. Freedom Caucus members withheld their vote for the rule until the last minute, illustrating that they represent make-or-break votes.
Still, the move to grant conservative policy votes was ultimately a gamble by McCarthy and his team. Republican leaders are placating conservatives — who have already threatened McCarthy’s speakership — by allowing votes on their amendments so they don’t block the bill from advancing to the full House on a procedural vote. GOP leaders needed the most hardline proposals to be voted down in the lower chamber to avoid Democrats jumping ship and killing the defense bill’s chances of passing. The abortion vote in all likelihood changed that.
Democrats telegraphed that they won’t support the $886 billion defense bill if Republicans load it up with hardline provisions. They ripped GOP leaders for catering to their right flank and eschewing the bipartisan support the legislation typically receives.
“This bill passed out of the Armed Services Committee 58-1,” said Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee. “Looking at the amendments made in order, I’d be surprised if this barely passes the House.”
“It is outrageous that a tiny minority of MAGA extremists is dictating how we’re going to proceed,” McGovern said.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) cast doubt on Democrats’ commitment to vote against the bill, even if some of the hardline conservative amendments are adopted. Gaetz, a vocal opponent to more aid for Ukraine, is betting Democrats don’t want to be on the record voting against support for Kyiv in the bill.
“Democrats are to Ukraine money, like what a cat is to catnip,” Gaetz said. Other proposals could also sway the debate.
Several amendments to gut Pentagon diversity programs were included in the package, including a proposal from Gaetz to block diversity, equity and inclusion training.
Conservatives will also get an opportunity to dive back into a fight over removing the names of Confederate leaders from Army bases and other military property less than a year after a congressionally mandated commission submitted its renaming recommendations.
Party leaders granted Rep. Bob Good
(R-Va.) a vote on his amendment, even though many of the installations have already adopted their new names.
Of the 80 amendments headed to the floor, 70 are Republican-sponsored versus four from Democrats and six that are bipartisan. The bulk of the over 1,500 amendments filed were abandoned.
Democrats bemoaned several priorities that were left on the cutting room floor, including a marquee amendment from Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) would have broadly barred the U.S. from transferring cluster munitions abroad, opposing Biden’s decision to send them to Ukraine. The proposal was also cosponsored by Gaetz.
Republicans stiff-armed the amendment, instead granting Greene a vote on her proposal to limit giving cluster bombs specifically to Ukraine.