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Only 4 Democrats Vote for $886B Defense Bill After GOP Adds Anti-Abortion Rider

The bill passed by a slim margin after Republicans attached provisions attacking trans people and abortion access.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry looks to members of the caucus following a press conference on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on July 14, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

On Friday, the House passed yet another record high Department of Defense funding bill — but, unlike previous years, the bill didn’t pass with the usual bipartisan support, due in large part to an anti-abortion rider that Republicans approved late Thursday.

This year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed Friday morning, authorizing a sky-high $886 billion for defense for 2024. This is a $28 billion increase from last year’s defense funding, pushing the already towering defense budget ever closer to $1 trillion a year.

But this time around, the bill that’s typically dubbed a “must-pass” bill by corporate media and establishment lawmakers passed 219 to 210. This is a far slimmer margin than the typical overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle for the NDAA; over the past two years, for instance, the bill has passed with over 300 “yes” votes.

The key distinguishing factor this year appears to be Republicans’ approval of an anti-abortion amendment introduced by Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas). The amendment prohibits the Secretary of Defense from paying for services related to abortion — a direct attack on President Joe Biden’s supposed government-wide commitment to protecting abortion seekers, including those within the military. The amendment passed largely on party lines, with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the only vocally anti-abortion Democrat in the House, voting for its inclusion.

Another approved amendment brought by Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Montana) would ban military health insurance and the Pentagon from covering or providing gender-affirming care or surgeries for transgender people. Other Republican provisions included in the bill targeted diversity and climate initiatives.

Typically, progressives urge lawmakers to vote against the defense bill, citing the absurdity of Congress authorizing hundreds of billions of dollars for militarization and supporting human rights abuses while allowing budgets for areas like education, labor, health, and more to languish. Still, Democrats are typically largely in favor of the bill, with only a small group of progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) making a yearly tradition of voting “no.”

It is typical for provisions to be attached to the NDAA; Donald Trump vetoed the NDAA passed in 2020, for instance, because he was upset that it didn’t include an amendment to honor Confederate generals.

Though progressives would argue against the passage of nearly $900 billion for an agency that is rife with abuse and fraud, it would appear that the abortion provision is where many more right-leaning Democrats drew the line this year. Only four Democrats — all infamously conservative — voted “yes,” with the rest of the caucus voting against it.

“It’s not ideal. I always support the NDAA,” one Democrat anonymously told CNN Thursday night, before the bill’s final passage. “It sucks, but I have to make a decision. That’s what I am weighing. I have to figure it out. Republicans are making the NDAA a culture war bill, but at the same time I’ve always voted for pay raises so this is a challenge.”

The quote is telling in that the Democrat, who may or may not have voted for the bill in the end, apparently takes more umbrage with Republicans’ “culture war” than with the wars that the U.S. is funding across the world and domestically. In this Democrat’s eyes, spending more on defense each year than the next 10 countries combined is essential — only Republican maneuvering could give them pause.

To be sure, the amendments will cause harm, especially to the most marginalized groups that are already under severe attack. But the same could be said about the defense spending that many Democrats are so eager to support.

Indeed, in House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries’s (D-New York) criticism of the bill, he condemned Republicans for putting the “must-pass” bill at risk.

“It is woefully irresponsible that extreme MAGA Republicans have hijacked a bipartisan bill that is essential to our national security, and taken it over and weaponized it in order to jam their extreme right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people,” he said.

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