Top lawmakers drop abortion limits from defense bill, setting up fight with the right

The Senate moved first and is expected to vote on the bill early next week after clearing an initial procedural hurdle Thursday. The House will follow and is likely to consider the measure under suspension of the rules — an expedited process that requires a two-thirds majority. The tactic could ease Johnson’s push to pass the deal by bypassing tricky procedural votes that hardliners have tanked recently.

This new version of the bill is on track to pass both houses with bipartisan support. Yet the abortion policy omission is a blow to conservatives who muscled the provision into the House version of the bill over the summer.

Hard-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a member of the conference committee on the defense bill, described her position as “hell no” after GOP provisions on abortion and transgender troops fell away and an extension of the surveillance authorities was included.

“This was a total sell-out of conservative principles and a huge win for Democrats,” Greene tweeted.

Still, Republicans saw wins with some concessions that rein in Pentagon efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the ranks.

Lawmakers in both parties expect Johnson to help shepherd a bipartisan bill through the House. But pushing through a bill that drops many conservative priorities could earn Johnson even greater ire. He’s already taking heat from his right flank on government funding, Ukraine aid and other issues.

The Pentagon instituted a policy this year to reimburse troops for the costs of traveling to seek abortions. Republicans argue it undermines laws that bar taxpayer money for abortions.

The Democratic-led Senate sidestepped the abortion issue altogether in the debate on its version of the defense bill. Blocking the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy was a red line for Democrats that would have tanked the bill.

House Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) predicted the lack of abortion language won’t be a major impediment to the bill’s chances because most Republicans saw it as a long shot.

“I told everybody when that stuff was added on the floor, it was never going to survive the Senate,” Rogers said. “And anybody who thought it was [is] not being realistic.”

The final deal also drops controversial House GOP-backed language blocking coverage of transition surgeries and hormone treatments for transgender troops.

But attaching a short-term extension of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act until April 19 may be Johnson’s biggest stumbling block within his own ranks.

Conservatives, including House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), had privately urged him to keep the two issues separate, as did Rogers.

Congress has until the end of the year to reauthorize the surveillance authority, which is meant to target foreigners abroad but also has the ability to sweep in Americans. But with no agreed-upon path forward, lawmakers need more time.

Johnson defended linking the NDAA and the surveillance extension in a letter Thursday to fellow Republicans, saying he received a commitment from Senate leaders that they would negotiate a final surveillance bill. In a joint statement Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell committed to “work in good faith” on a bipartisan bill that can pass both chambers.

Republican leaders plan to do a whip count electronically on Friday, which will give them an idea of how many members may defect on the defense bill.

Rogers said he’s urging lawmakers to base their votes on the totality of the 3,000-plus page bill, not just a four-month surveillance extension.

“To say, ‘Well, I can’t vote for it with FISA.’ No, you’re going to be on record voting against everything that’s in the largest bill that passes each year,” Rogers said. “There’s many, many, many items in there that you probably don’t want to be on the record as opposing.”

Still, conservatives won some concessions in the final Pentagon policy bill that Republican leaders hope will sell the package to their ranks.

The bill kept House language banning the endorsement of critical race theory in the military.

The deal also requires the Pentagon comptroller to review the workforce dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion programs and policy. It also includes a salary cap and hiring freeze for the diversity workforce.

The bill text also includes a requirement that the Pentagon develop a plan on what to do with unused border wall materials. The language follows a push from Senate Armed Services ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) to halt the Biden administration’s auctioning of those materials.

Jordain Carney contributed to this report.