House passes defense bill in big win for McCarthy, House GOP

The House on Friday approved the annual defense policy bill in an unusually partisan vote after it was loaded up with conservative amendments, marking a big win for Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) but raising new questions about how the package — which is dead on arrival in the Senate — will eventually become law.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed in a largely party-line 219-210 vote, with four Republicans opposing the measure and four Democrats supporting it — an atypical outcome for the annual legislation, which routinely enjoys broad bipartisan support.

The legislation came under fire from Democrats after a number of GOP-sponsored amendments regarding abortion, transgender rights, diversity and inclusion initiatives and other hot-button issues were attached. In a sign of the widespread Democratic opposition, the top three leaders in the caucus came out against the legislation late Thursday night.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) discusses the passage of the National Defense Association Act in the House at a press conference in the Capitol on Friday, July 14, 2023. (Tierney L. Cross)

But the widespread Democratic opposition — and conservative detractors — was not enough to tank the package, despite questions looming all week about whether the culture war amendments would doom the must-pass bill. The package got a crucial boost Friday from conservatives in the Freedom Caucus, who came around to supporting the measure after its sharp rightward shift.  

“I’m sorry to disappoint you that Republicans continue to keep our promises,” McCarthy said facetiously at a press conference following the vote.

“It’s a good thing the Republicans are in the majority, but it’s more important that we keep our promises to America and to our men and women who serve to defend us. And today is exactly what we did,” he later added.

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Republican Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Ken Buck (Colo.), Eli Crane (Ariz.) and Thomas Massie (Ky.) bucked GOP leadership and voted against the bill, while Democratic Reps. Don Davis (N.C.), Jared Golden (Maine), Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (Wash.) and Gabe Vasquez (N.M.) crossed the aisle and backed it.

The bill now moves to the Democratic-led Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is sure to reject the controversial amendments — a dynamic House Republicans readily acknowledge. 

“I think it’ll probably be a totally different bill when we get it back later this year,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said. “I don’t know what 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.”

The certain changes in the Senate set up yet another fight with House Republicans over how to get the bill to President Biden’s desk before the Sept. 30 deadline. McCarthy has suggested the two chambers will conference the two bills to iron out the differences, but with time running short, he may be forced to bring the Senate’s version — which will necessarily be bipartisan — to the floor.

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The House-passed bill sets an $886 billion budget for the nation’s armed forces in fiscal 2024, an amount on par with President Biden’s defense spending request, as well as the spending cap set by the debt limit deal.

Included in that amount is $842 billion for the Defense Department and $32 billion for nuclear weapons programs that fall under the purview of the Energy Department. 

The House Armed Services Committee passed the measure in an overwhelming 58-1 vote in June, but Democratic support dropped Thursday, after GOP-sponsored amendments were added to the bill.

Chief among those was a measure that would reverse the Pentagon’s policy to reimburse travel expenses for service members who get abortions across state lines — the same program that has sparked Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) protest in the upper chamber, where he has blocked hundreds of military promotions. Heading into the vote, Freedom Caucus conservatives had hailed Tuberville as a driving force behind their successful effort to alter the initial bill.  

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks with Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) as they arrive for a Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks with Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) as they arrive for a Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing for U.S. Air Force Gen. Charles Brown to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on July 11. Greg Nash

Amendments targeting transgender care and diversity and inclusion initiatives also battered away at Democratic support.

One measure would prohibit the health care program for active-duty service members from covering “sex reassignment surgeries and gender hormone treatments for transgender individuals,” and the other calls for prohibiting gender transition procedures through the Exceptional Family Member Program. 

Other provisions eliminate diversity equity and inclusion offices and personnel in the armed forces and curtail federal funding for such efforts.

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who had previously supported the NDAA, bashed the final House bill as one that pushes “an agenda rooted in racism, misogyny, bigotry, ignorance, and hatred.”

“What we’ve seen is this bill has been transformed into an extremist manifesto,” House Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) said Friday morning on CNN.

“We know that this bill is going nowhere in the Senate, because it is disgusting and outrageous,” she later added.

A wild card heading into the vote surrounded Ukraine funding, after several amendments to curtail U.S. aid to Kyiv were shot down on the House floor Thursday. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) had sponsored three of those failed Ukraine proposals, including one to strike $300 million in direct assistance, and had vowed to oppose the underlying NDAA package as a result. 

In a sign of her shifting allegiances toward McCarthy, however, Greene reversed course Friday and supported the final bill. She later explained the reason: McCarthy had offered her a seat on the conference committee that will be charged with cutting a deal with Senate negotiators over a final compromise package — if such a conference comes to pass. 

“The Speaker asked me to represent him and our conference in the conference to go forward in the Senate in the NDAA, and so I’m proud to do that,” Greene told reporters following the vote. “And that’s where I’ll fight on the issue that I think is extremely important: to remove the funding for Ukraine in the NDAA.”

Updated at 12:47 p.m. ET.

Tags Charles Brown Hunter Biden Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Nancy Mace National Defense Authorization Act NDAA

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