Defense bill becomes battleground for culture wars

·5 min read

From vaccine mandates to abortion, the annual defense spending bill has become a vehicle for both Republicans and Democrats in the House to try to hash out culture war issues.

The House Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-line conservatives, on Wednesday announced an official position urging GOP colleagues to oppose the bill, citing a number of hot-button cultural issues along with concern about military funding going to other countries.

“This bill does nothing to address the President’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which are forcing thousands of our best, bravest, and highly trained (on the Taxpayers’ dime, mind you) Service Members out of the military,” the House Freedom Caucus said in a statement.

“It also fails to end the radical Left’s contamination of our military with ‘woke’ ideology, the prioritization of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ over combat readiness, or the wasteful allocation of funds on politically motivated ‘Green New Deal’ climate initiatives.”

On the Democratic side, lawmakers veered into the abortion debate by introducing an amendment to repeal current restrictions on using Pentagon funds to perform abortions. The House Rules committee did not allow the amendment to be debated.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), sponsor of the amendment, chalked up her amendment not being considered to the bipartisan nature of the NDAA.

“The NDAA is a vehicle, you know. It often doesn’t pass with progressive votes, it passes with Republican votes,” Jayapal said. “So I think this is clearly one where it’s going to need Republican votes and they’re not going to vote for something with abortion in there.”

The must-pass nature of the NDAA incentivizes leaders to keep culture war poison pills out of the legislation. The NDAA often draws opposition from the ideological edges in both parties.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) dismissed the Freedom Caucus’s objections to the bill, saying it’s not a vehicle for culture battles.

“The culture wars are part of, you know, a lot of things we do. Now, a bill comes up around here, the Freedom Caucus is gonna try to make that an issue,” Smith said. “So I don’t think the NDAA is a vehicle for that, it’s more just a side note to that broader issue.”

Some anti-abortion amendments offered by Republicans were also not considered. A record 1,230 amendments were submitted to the NDAA through the House Rules Committee this year.

House Democrats did, however, approve one key hot-button measures that drew universal opposition from Republicans: Requiring reports on instances of white supremacy and Neo-Nazi activity in the armed services and federal law enforcement.

Approved amendments and provisions may be later removed after the Senate passes its version of the NDAA and the two chambers conference on a final version of the bill. The House passed its version of the NDAA by a 329 to 101 vote Thursday evening.

Several Republican amendments aimed at combating COVID-19 vaccine requirements failed in the committee markup of the bill, and many more submitted to the House Rules Committee were not considered.

However, the House approved by voice vote an amendment to require the Department of Defense to report every 60 days on the number of religious and medical exemption requests and denials of those requests, along with the number of individuals who later complied and those who did not comply and were dismissed.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said that the NDAA’s failure to address the vaccine mandate was a dealbreaker.

“No fix to the vaccine mandates, no changes to all of this woke garbage. It’s destroying morale in the military,” Roy said. “The vaccine mandate is the starting place for, you know, getting us to start considering whether we could support the NDAA.”

To get him to even consider supporting the bill, Roy said, it would have to also push NATO countries to hit the 2 percent military funding threshold, create more oversight of money flowing to Ukraine as it battles a Russian invasion, not give the mayor of Washington, D.C. authority over the D.C. National Guard, and having some kind of ban on “critical race theory” or “wokeism stuff” in the bill.

The amendment to give the D.C. mayor authority of the D.C. National Guard was a response to the existing chain of command contributing to delays in deploying to Guard to the Capitol on January 6. It passed on almost entirely partisan lines Wednesday night, with all Republicans except Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.) voting against the measure, and Rep. Jared Golden (Maine) being the only Democrat to vote against it.

However, many Republicans are planning to support the NDAA even if it does not address cultural issues they care about.

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, has railed against military leaders for promoting books like Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” and creating a “safe space” for subordinates to have conversations with their commanders. But this year’s NDAA, he said, is acceptable.

“The left has sabotaged the NDAA and the military to advance their left-wing and woke causes,” Banks said. “The reality is that the NDAA is mission critical to our national security, to combating our biggest adversaries, especially a rising China. And this NDAA is a lot better than the NDAA that we voted for that came to the House floor last year.”

There were some “culture war” wins for Republicans. This year’s House version of the NDAA does not include a provision to require women to register for the selective service, though the Senate’s NDAA currently does. Freedom Caucus Republicans opposed the NDAA last year in large part due to what they called the “Draft our Daughters” measure, which was later removed from the final bill.

“It is it perfect? Does it go far enough? Of course not,” Banks said. “But for the most part, we’ve kept the worst issues out of it.”

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