Tactical

GOP lawmakers target diversity training, COVID rules in defense bill

Republican House lawmakers on Wednesday turned the annual defense authorization bill debate into a referendum on a host of controversial social issues, attaching limits on diversity training, transgender rights and covid vaccines to the sweeping military policy measure.

The contentious, marathon mark-up before the House Armed Services Committee featured 14-plus hours of escalating partisan fights over the bill, which outlines more than $800 billion in spending priorities and policy changes for the military in fiscal 2024.

Many of the fights mirrored provisions championed by Republicans in the defense appropriations bill unveiled a week earlier, and several lawmakers hinted even more could come in full chamber discussion on the measures expected next month.

“I hope we go far beyond this in the floor debate,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., author of several of the most divisive measures in Wednesday’s mark-up.

Democratic lawmakers on the panel repeatedly blasted the arguments as a waste of time and little more than political posturing for GOP members intent on crafting re-election campaign points.

“It blows my mind that we have been sitting here for hours talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash. “If the military is going to be successful, it has to evolve with society in the 21st century. We are more diverse and we are more inclusive.”

But they also largely supported the final product, which passed out of committee on a 58-1 vote. Democrats praised the measure as critical to supporting troops and military families, ignoring the problematic provisions in their rounds of late-night celebratory press releases.

The authorization bill includes a host of routine military instructions, including a 5.2% pay raise for troops next January, renewal of dozens of enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses, and financial help for the lowest-ranking service members.

But during committee debate on Wednesday, Republicans added a lengthy list of conservative priorities via party-line votes, moves they say are needed to rein in political posturing by military leaders.

Among the list: banning defense officials from sponsoring drag shows on military bases, eliminating funding for diversity training and diversity-related jobs, banning “critical race theory” at service academies and requiring parents have more say in how Defense Department schools craft lesson plans.

And even though last year’s authorization bill ended the military’s requirement that troops get vaccinated against COVID-19, Republicans renewed the fight in this year’s bill, demanding financial protections for troops booted out for refusing vaccinations and blocking future similar inoculation requirements.

The moves “are necessary to prevent the Department of Defense from doubling down on the wrongful treatment of our service members,” said Rep. Cory Mills, R-Fla., during debate over the COVID-19 provisions.

Whether any of the provisions can survive negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate remains to be seen. The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to unveil its draft of the authorization bill later this week.

House appropriators included similar provisions — and a ban on Defense Department abortion assistance — in their budget bill. Senate appropriators have not yet unveiled their plans, but several key Democrats have already publicly decried the House plans.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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