The House is set to vote on Thursday on whether to limit abortion access, bar transgender services and end diversity training for military personnel, part of a series of major changes that hard-right Republicans are seeking to the annual defense policy bill, including pulling U.S. aid to Ukraine.
The debate was unfolding after Speaker Kevin McCarthy capitulated late Wednesday to a small group of ultraconservative Republicans who had threatened to block the legislation, which provides a yearly pay raise for U.S. troops and sets Pentagon policy, if their proposals did not receive consideration.
Instead the House moved forward on Thursday, slogging through dozens of proposed modifications with the fate of the $886 billion bill still in doubt. The far right’s proposals to strip away military assistance for Ukraine stand little chance of passage given the strong bipartisan consensus behind the aid, but it was not clear whether a measure to bar the Biden administration from sending cluster munitions might draw enough bipartisan backing to succeed.
And the provisions imposing socially conservative policies on the Pentagon are extremely popular among Republicans, raising the prospect that they could pass and sap Democratic backing for the bill, sinking it altogether.
In hours of floor debate on Thursday, Republicans made the case for attaching an array of social policy dictates to the legislation, arguing that they were working to thwart a bid by the Biden administration to inject its progressive vision into every area of government, including the Pentagon.
“It is this administration that has turned the Department of Defense into a social-engineering experiment wrapped in a uniform,” Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, said on the floor. “The American people I’ve talked to back home don’t want a weak military; they don’t want a woke military; they don’t want rainbow propaganda on bases; they don’t want to pay for troops’ sex changes.”
Representative Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts, the Democratic whip, said in an interview Thursday afternoon that there would be no support for the bill in her party if it contained the provision to bar the Pentagon from providing time off and reimbursement to service members traveling out of state to get an abortion or other reproductive health services.
She did not say whether Democrats would oppose the bill if Republicans succeeded in attaching other provisions, including one to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion training and bar the military’s health plan from covering gender transition surgeries — which currently can be covered only with a waiver — and gender-affirming hormone therapy.
“We’re going to look at the whole package,” Ms. Clark said, “but the whole package is extreme.”
Though defense bill debates have often been a forum for partisan policy fights, the debate in the House has been particularly nasty, exposing Republican divisions and threatening the customary bipartisan consensus around the legislation. The measures Republicans have proposed stand no chance of passing the Democratic-led Senate, and a protracted fight over the measure could imperil its chance of enactment.
Republicans “managed to mess up a bipartisan bill and put it on a path to becoming a hyperpartisan one by loading up with every divisive social issue under the sun,” Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, said on the House floor Thursday, accusing G.O.P. leaders of catering to “a dozen or so far-right MAGA wing nuts.”
Republican leaders, who can afford to lose no more than four votes on their side if Democrats remain united in opposition, had been counting on Democratic votes to help pass the defense bill. The demands of hard-right lawmakers to load the bill with a deeply conservative cultural agenda could cost them those critical votes.
They have also alienated some mainstream Republicans, including those from politically competitive districts. Representative Don Bacon, Republican of Nebraska, said in an interview on Thursday that he would oppose an across-the-board cut to diversity training.
“You’ve got to have basic training on our core values, which is: We don’t like racists in the military. We don’t like antisemites in the military. We don’t like sexists in the military,” he said.
Still, Mr. Bacon said he backed the proposals to undo the Pentagon’s policy on abortion access and deny coverage for gender-transition procedures, saying: “If you want to do it, do it on your own dime.”
Right-wing Republicans were expected to fail in their efforts to curtail military support for Ukraine. That included one proposal to end a $300 million military assistance program to train and equip Ukrainian soldiers that has been included in defense bills annually for almost a decade, and another to prohibit the United States from sending any other security assistance to Ukraine.
It was not clear whether a proposal to bar the Biden administration from sending cluster munitions to Ukraine, as the president announced he intended to do last week, could win the support necessary to pass.
Republican leaders have been agitating for cluster munitions to be sent to Ukraine for months, while most Democrats were outraged at President Biden’s decision. They argued that the unwieldy warheads — which scatter upon impact and routinely leave unexploded ordnance in the ground, endangering civilians for decades to come — would cost the United States the moral high ground in the war.
This week, a number of conservative Republicans aligned themselves with the Democrats opposing the move.
Annie Karni contributed reporting.