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House Republicans wage ‘woke’ culture wars with the military

For decades, bipartisan majorities in Congress approved the annual defense authorization bill that funds the military and national security priorities. That long-standing practice collapsed this week under the weight of a right-wing effort to turn the measure into the latest arena in the culture wars.

The vote in the House on Friday signaled that no area of public policy may now be insulated from the debates over abortion, transgender policies and other cultural issues that have become central to the Republican Party’s agenda. Unity around one of the most important responsibilities of the federal government — national security — gave way to the demands of a faction that wields great influence over Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his unruly conference.

The House narrowly approved the National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 219-210. Four Democrats supported it; four Republicans opposed it. Last December, the defense authorization cleared the House by a vote of 350-80, when Democrats held a slim majority in the chamber and the GOP’s far-right Freedom Caucus held little sway.

There is no realistic chance that the Democratic-controlled Senate will go along with the House version approved Friday, which includes limits on abortion, transgender transition treatment, diversity training and other matters. The Senate is almost certain to return to the House a defense bill stripped of those controversial Republican amendments.

The bill would then face an uncertain future as some House Republicans who pushed through the amendments have vowed to hold the line, though some of them made similar promises during the recent conflict over raising the government’s borrowing power yet still couldn’t prevent its passage in the end.

The House bill that was approved on a largely party-line vote came out of the Armed Services Committee last month on a vote of 58-1 — a testament to the way these defense measures have been treated in the past. Those bills historically have been vigorously debated, sometimes amended but ultimately passed with overwhelming majorities in favor.

The current bill, which has a price tag of $886 billion, includes a 5.2 percent pay raise for military personnel; more funding to support Ukraine in its war with Russia; and other measures designed to deal with rising threats, especially from China. When it hit the House floor, however, members of the Freedom Caucus called for votes on a series of divisive amendments on social policy. One of the most controversial amendments would prohibit the Pentagon from paying travel costs for those in the military to get abortions or other reproductive health care in other states, if the states where they are serving do not provide those services.

That is the same issue that has led Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) to hold up hundreds of Pentagon promotions for high-ranking officers in what Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has deemed a threat to national security. Tuberville recently found himself forced to relent on his language after refusing during a CNN interview to label white supremacists as racist.

Beyond the amendments on abortion and treatment for transgender individuals, the defense bill approved by the House includes a series of additions attacking what some Republicans call a “far left woke ideology.”

The amendments included a ban on the teaching of critical race theory. An amendment called for the elimination of programs in the military aimed at increasing diversity, equity and inclusion. In the eyes of some Republicans, a “woke” military is a weak military. They argue that the Biden administration has injected cultural issues into the military, whether on abortion or diversity, equity and inclusion priorities.

House Democrats faced a difficult choice — to vote against a defense bill that included much that they liked and wanted, knowing that a “no” vote could be used against them in their upcoming elections to suggest they were anti-military, or to support a bill that included provisions anathema to their personal beliefs, their party’s diverse base and in some cases the views of the majority of Americans. In the end, Democrats largely united against the amended bill.

After the vote, McCarthy hailed the bill’s passage and questioned why Democrats had walked away from America’s troops by opposing it, though the last word on who supports the final version of the bill will come later in the year.

McCarthy, who governs with a tiny majority and needed 15 rounds of voting to secure the speaker’s gavel, was again forced to accept the fact that the hard-right caucus can stymie him and other Republicans. On the debt ceiling, he was able to give the rebels their way on the first round, again passing a measure that would not stand up in the Senate, and succeeded in seeing the final package, negotiated with President Biden, attract bipartisan support. Perhaps the same thing will happen on the defense bill, but likely only if the most controversial amendments are jettisoned.

The amendments that were added to the defense authorization bill, however, highlight the degree to which cultural and social flash points have become the bread-and-butter issues for a significant part of the Republican base.

Since the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion a year ago, Republicans in several states have enacted highly restrictive measures limiting abortions. On Friday, for instance, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed a law prohibiting abortions after six weeks, with some exceptions. The bill was similar to one passed earlier this year by the Florida legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a presidential candidate.

Republicans differ on whether they want to see national legislation restricting abortion. The defense bill represents the first effort at imposing the equivalent of federal policy. In almost every test case since the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, voters have shown their support for protecting a woman’s right to choose, including in last year’s remarkable ballot measure in Kansas. The six-week bans go well beyond what now is a national consensus on the issue, and Republican politicians could pay a price in the 2024 elections by embracing them.

The anti-woke initiatives in the defense bill echo what Republicans have done in some states where they control both the legislature and the governor’s office, including restricting how the country’s racial history can be taught in schools and limiting discussion of gender and identity for schoolchildren.

Republican elected officials are gambling that these issues not only motivate their base but appeal to a broader section of the electorate. DeSantis has built his presidential campaign on proclaiming that his state is “where woke goes to die” and that he would do for the nation what he has done for Florida.

These issues will play out between now and Election Day 2024, with Biden and the Democrats branding Republicans as captured by the party’s “extreme MAGA” wing, using Trump’s “make America great again” slogan. The Republican presidential nomination campaign already shows the direction the party is heading, with cultural and social issues dominating the messaging from most of the candidates.

All of that might be expected. What wasn’t expected is that this debate would spill over to the issue of national defense, long considered an area of consensus. The notion of the military as largely insulated from partisanship has been shattered by what House Republicans did this week.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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