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

Last updated on December 7, 2023

A compromise defense policy bill unveiled late Wednesday will not include a Republican-backed proposal to block the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy, nixing a controversial measure that threatened to tank the legislation.

The exclusion sets up a test for Speaker Mike Johnson, who will need to sell a deal that is more moderate than the hard-right defense bill the House passed in July largely along party lines.

Johnson’s task of uniting Republicans behind the $886 billion National Defense Authorization Act will be further complicated by congressional leaders’ decision to attach a four-month extension of warrantless government surveillance authorities.

The Senate is set to consider the deal first, and could take an initial procedural vote as soon as 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.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) had tied up hundreds of senior military promotions for months in protest of the policy. Tuberville finally ended the blockade on Tuesday with no change in the policy, paving the way for over 400 nominees to be confirmed.

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.

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

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.