House Adoption of Conservative Amendments Leaves Fate of Must-Pass Defense Bill in Doubt

House adoption of conservative amendments to a defense bill has put the fate of the must-pass package in doubt, causing opposition from Democrats and creating challenges for Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to gather enough Republican votes to pass it through the lower chamber. This is rare for the annual legislative ritual known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which typically enjoys broad bipartisan support. However, McCarthy brought a series of controversial conservative amendments to the floor under pressure from hard-liners in his conference. On Thursday evening, five of those measures, including ones related to abortion and transgender rights, were approved mostly along party lines.

One of the most consequential amendments would reverse the Pentagon’s policy to reimburse travel expenses for service members who receive abortions. The policy has caused Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) to block hundreds of military promotions in the Senate in protest. Only two Republicans, Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and John Duarte (R-Calif.), opposed the amendment, with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) being the only Democrat to vote in favor. Democrats have specifically pointed to this amendment as a deal-breaker for their support of the NDAA.

The original NDAA framework passed through the Armed Services Committee with bipartisan support last month. However, the conservative amendments are now causing immediate opposition from Democrats, who vow to vote against the final bill when it reaches the floor. This puts McCarthy in a difficult position as he tries to secure more votes from his own party. Some Republicans who previously opposed the NDAA due to amendments blocking funding for Ukraine are also planning to vote against the final passage.

To pass the bill as planned on Friday, McCarthy will either need Democrats to overlook the controversial amendments or convince conservative Republicans to support it despite their concerns. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who has never voted in favor of the annual defense bill before, said he is reconsidering this time. The chamber also approved amendments related to transgender issues, as well as measures banning diversity initiatives and the promotion of “woke” ideas.

Democrats accuse GOP leaders of caving to conservative elements and politicizing the bill with these amendments. Republicans, on the other hand, argue that they are responding to the Biden administration’s adoption of social policies within the Department of Defense. McCarthy dismissed concerns about controversial amendments, comparing the abortion policy to the long-standing Hyde Amendment. There are early indications that Republicans will blame Democrats if the bill faces difficulties passing.

The NDAA debate has faced delays as McCarthy and his team struggle to devise an amendments strategy. Conservative members pushed for these amendments, and some of them have expressed support for the bill after their approval. However, not all hardline Republicans are satisfied, with concerns about funding for Ukraine being a sticking point for some. The House overwhelmingly rejected a series of amendments related to Ukraine funding on Thursday, causing unease among GOP lawmakers.

Ultimately, the fate of the defense bill rests on McCarthy’s ability to secure enough votes either from Democrats who are willing to overlook the controversial amendments or from conservative Republicans who can set aside their concerns about Ukraine funding. The bill is expected to face a final vote in the coming days.