As the U.S. House of Representatives prepares to vote on the $900 billion annual defense budget, Republicans have proposed dozens of amendments to the bill in an effort to eliminate what they say are “woke” policies implemented by President Joe Biden.

Members of Utah’s congressional delegation say these “culture war” issues are dragging the military into unnecessary battles at home, while leaving the country unprepared to fight wars abroad. 

The 1,200 page National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024, which passed the House Armed Services Committee on June 21, is expected to come up for a vote in the House this week. The bill details how Congress would allocate nearly $900 billion to fund U.S. military operations next year.

It includes across-the-board pay raises for service members, additional assistance for Ukraine and resources to counter China.

But so far there are roughly 1,400 proposed amendments to the bill, including dozens aimed at reversing Pentagon policies related to abortion access, gender reassignment surgery and critical race theory instruction in Department of Defense schools.

“The (Department of Defense) must focus on the real conflicts and wars America faces against its adversaries and not the culture wars often perpetrated from the Biden administration,” Utah Republican Rep. Blake Moore said in a statement to the Deseret News. 

After Roe v. Wade was overturned last year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the Pentagon would begin offering time off and paid travel expenses for service members seeking an abortion if they are posted in a state with restrictive abortion laws. Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville has halted around 250 promotions of high-ranking military officers to protest the policy. 

Republican lawmakers point to the Pentagon’s tax-funded reimbursement of abortion travel costs, as well as policies like gender-transition treatments being included in the military’s health care plan and critical race theory being taught at service academies, as evidence that the military under Biden needs a course correction.

“In only three years, President Biden has managed to tarnish our Armed Forces’ 248-year legacy of service by prioritizing identity politics and failing to stand up to our adversaries in Beijing, Tehran, and Moscow. This year’s Department of Defense priorities are clear: Taxpayer-funded abortions, DEI programs, and divisive Critical Race Theory,” Utah Republican Rep. Burgess Owens said in a statement to the Deseret News.

Military recruitment numbers are down. Are ‘woke’ politics to blame?

On Monday, the White House released a statement championing the Department of Defense’s recent policies and criticizing Republican efforts to undo them. 

“We rely on diverse perspectives, experiences, and skillsets to remain a global leader, deter war, and keep our nation secure … . Legislation that reduces DoD’s ability to create a positive work environment and fully leverage the best our nation has to offer puts the Department at a strategic disadvantage,” the statement said. 

However, if the Pentagon wants to maximize military readiness and create a welcoming work environment it should stay away from politically polarized policies, according to Moore, who represents Utah’s 1st Congressional District. 

“We need to narrowly focus the DoD mission on national security,” he said. “Everyone welcomes efforts to increase recruitment and embrace a more diverse military, but that doesn’t necessitate wading into the culture wars.”

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will be wading into a different kind of war this week as he tries to unite the Republican conference around a version of the defense budget bill that can pass the Senate. He will likely want to avoid a repeat of May’s debt ceiling vote — where he received more Democratic support than Republican — by including at least some of his colleagues’ amendments.

What are the amendments to the defense budget?

The amendments range from provisions requesting studies on the impact of potential catastrophic events, to requiring reports on the effectiveness of international sanctions, to one that would designate the month of July as “American Pride Month” to celebrate patriotism.

But the amendments McCarthy will likely face the most pressure to include in the final version of the bill have to do with high profile social issues, including:

  • An amendment that would prohibit the defense department from reimbursing any expenses related to abortion services was introduced by Texas Republican Rep. Ronny Jackson. He was joined by 45 other Republicans. The amendment is modeled after legislation he introduced earlier this term.
  • Another amendment, proposed by Republican Reps. Matt Rosendale of Montana, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, would block the military’s healthcare program, TRICARE, from “furnishing sex reassignment surgeries and gender hormone treatments for transgender individuals.”
  • Several other amendments seek to require a report on DEI efforts in the military, prohibit the use of federal funds for military DEI activities or ban the hiring of new DEI administrators.
  • An amendment to prohibit critical race theory curriculum at military academies was submitted but later withdrawn.

Rep. John Curtis of Utah’s 3rd Congressional District says that far from fueling controversy, what these amendments do is align the country’s armed forces with its true purpose.

“(The National Defense Authorization Act) cuts spending programs that aren’t showing tangible results and initiatives the military just shouldn’t be involved in like DEI, CRT, or abortion services,” Curtis said. “The federal government’s primary duty is to ensure the safety of American citizens from threats foreign and domestic. We, as Republicans, will persist in our efforts to overturn any policy that undermines military readiness.”

There is some division in the Republican conference over amendments related to America’s involvement in the war in Ukraine.

Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced an amendment to the defense budget that would completely remove the $300 million in new funding for Ukraine’s fight against Russia and calls for a “diplomatic solution to the war.”

Greene’s amendment represents another divide among House Republicans over defense spending, with some saying the defense budget should be cut below the cap placed on discretionary defense spending during the debt ceiling deal and others pushing for funding to exceed that limit.

How will National Defense Authorization Act affect Utah?

According to Curtis, the defense budget’s investment in supporting Ukraine and deterring a confrontation with China will keep Utah safe and economically strong. If China were to invade Taiwan, the U.S., and Utah, would lose its main supplier of “the semiconductors that power our economy,” he said.

The budget could also lead to benefits for Utah’s Hill Air Force Base, located in Moore’s district. Included are: Moore’s Retain Skilled Vets Act, which would make it easier for veterans to find employment as civilian employees at the Department of Defense; funding for a missile defense program that would bring 4,000 jobs to Northern Utah; and authorization to subsidize and provide additional housing near bases for military families.

When asked whether this year’s defense budget aligned with his commitment to “reverse America’s debt culture,” Moore said it did. He said that at 3% of the nation’s GDP, spending on the military is far from the main source of the country’s problems.

“It is not too much,” he said. “Our current levels of military spending maintain parity with the diverse geopolitical threats faced abroad.”

But Moore said he remains committed to making the defense budget “as efficient as possible” and highlighted the importance of identifying waste in military spending. 

Also included in the bill is an amendment what would reinstate service members who were fired for refusing COVID-19 vaccines. Last month Owens, who represents Utah’s 4th Congressional District, sponsored a bill to the same effect.

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“Jeopardizing the might and readiness of our U.S. Military, President Biden and his administration discharged more than 8,400 active-duty servicemen and women for choosing not to get the COVID-19 vaccine,” Owens said in a statement about the bill. “Despite signing Republicans’ repeal of the vaccine mandate for members of the U.S. armed forces, there is no plan to repay these men and women who were wrongfully fired.” 

When will Congress pass the defense budget?

The House Rules Committee will meet Tuesday afternoon to review the defense spending bill. During the meeting, it will be determined which and how many of the amendments will be included in the package that will receive a House vote. After clearing the committee, the bill will then be considered on the House floor, likely later this week.

A corresponding bill has made its way out of the Senate Armed Services Committee and its passage is considered the priority for the month of July, according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The Senate bill includes the same 5.2% pay raise for service members and Department of Defense employees. And while it also includes provisions critical of “DEI programming” across the military, it’s unlikely the Senate bill will end up with the same amendments as the House bill. The mismatch will require both chambers to form a bicameral committee tasked with reconciling the two bills before a final version can be sent to the president.

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