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How the historically bipartisan defense bill became a proxy for the culture wars

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The National Defense Authorization Act, Congress's annual defense bill, defines the national security priorities for the Pentagon. And historically, it's had bipartisan support. But on Friday, it narrowly passed the Republican-controlled House along near-party lines. The $886 billion bill became a proxy for the culture wars between the two parties on everything from racial equity to access to abortion. Speaker Kevin McCarthy said the bill sends this message to Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: Stop using taxpayer money to do their own wokeism. A military cannot defend themselves if you train them in woke.

SIMON: NPR political correspondent Susan Davis joins us. Sue, thanks so much for being with us.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How did this defense bill become a proxy fight?

DAVIS: Well, hard-line conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus really focused their political muscle in shaping this bill in a way they never have before. Very broadly, Republicans do take issue with Biden administration policies that they say make the military too socially progressive. So in this bill, for example, they passed amendments that would roll back existing policies that fund DEI programs. That's diversity, equity and inclusion. They also added in prohibitions on things like specialized health care for transgender service members.

Democrats oppose these, but they also counter that they're policies that make the military attract a more diverse workforce and could help struggling recruitment if they are seen as more inclusive. That's the force of the Democratic opposition to these amendments. Much of this bill, Scott - is important to remember - is very bipartisan. One good example of that, this bill includes a 5.2% pay raise for service members and more child care and housing assistance for military families.

SIMON: There's a significant divide in this defense bill, though, over access to abortion, isn't there?

DAVIS: Yeah. The Biden administration enacted a policy that covers certain costs of service members if they have to travel to receive abortion services. This came in response to the Supreme Court Dobbs decision, when it overturned Roe v. Wade. Since that point, more than a dozen states have enacted near-total bans on abortion. Republicans say that this policy violates a very well-established law known as the Hyde Amendment that says that taxpayer dollars can't be used to pay for anyone's abortion. But this Biden policy does not actually pay for abortion costs. It does reimburse for travel expenses, and it also allows for up to three weeks of administrative leave to receive that care. But the Republican-passed bill would effectively end that policy.

SIMON: We've been talking about what's been happening in the Republican-controlled House. Democrats control the Senate. Can we expect these fights to resume there?

DAVIS: Well, there hasn't been as much interest among Senate Republicans in focusing on these culture-war-type issues, specifically in a defense bill. Frankly, none of these Republican amendments can survive in a Democratic-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says they want to pass their own version of the bill before the August break. And then they're going to have to try to reconcile two competing versions of the bill. It's really hard to say how that can happen unless Speaker McCarthy is willing to water down his bill to get more Democrats on board.

But stripping out these amendments would likely see support collapse among the conservatives that helped write it. So for now, McCarthy seems ready to fight. One sign of that, he already announced that one of the negotiators he's sending to that table will be far-right conservative Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.

SIMON: NPR political correspondent Susan Davis, thanks so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.