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The politicization of the National Defense Authorization Act

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The House has narrowly passed a nearly $900 billion defense package. It's a bill that comes up every year and normally enjoys bipartisan support. This time around, most Democrats voted against it, arguing their GOP colleagues attached poison pill amendments on culture war issues like abortion that made the bill unacceptable. NPR's Barbara Sprunt has more.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: On this vote, the yeas are 219, and the nays are 210. The bill is passed...

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: With this, roughly six decades of precedent were shattered. Traditionally, members of both parties show significant support for the annual defense bill, which sets Pentagon policy and spending levels for the year ahead. But conservatives like Pennsylvania Congressman Scott Perry threatened to block a vote unless House Speaker Kevin McCarthy allowed changes - to roll back racial diversity programs and prohibit specialized care for transgender service members or their families.

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SCOTT PERRY: The military needs to be focused on readiness and lethality, and all these other things are distractors from that and harm our national security.

SPRUNT: McCarthy relented and defended the move.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: Radical programs that have forced our troops at the expense of readiness are now eliminated. Cutting-edge technology that is essential for the future of this country and to keep freedom around the world in the rise of China and Russia will receive more investment than we've watched in the past.

SPRUNT: Perhaps the biggest amendment that many Democrats say they couldn't stomach was offered by Texas Republican Congressman Ronny Jackson - to roll back Pentagon policies reimbursing servicewomen for travel costs out of state to obtain an abortion. Here's Jackson.

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RONNY JACKSON: Taxpayer money provided to DOD is intended to provide for our national defense and our national security, not to promote and support the Biden administration's radical and immoral pro-abortion agenda.

SPRUNT: After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the Biden administration created a policy that covers just the travel costs of service members who obtain abortion services. Republicans say this violates a federal ban on using taxpayer dollars. New Jersey Democrat Mikie Sherrill, a veteran herself, argues the amendment puts service women's lives at risk if they're stationed in states that have passed abortion restrictions.

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MIKIE SHERRILL: How am I supposed to recommend to young girls in my district that they should attend a service academy like I did when we know this amendment would mean that they'd be signing away their right to basic health care? This amendment makes our service women pawns in their extreme agenda and is a stepping stone to larger bans, restrictions and wholesale disregard with women's health care in America.

SPRUNT: The defense package includes items that lawmakers in both parties generally support, like a 5.2% base pay increase for service members. There's also increased access to childcare, health care and housing for military families, but only four Democrats ended up voting for the bill. Here's Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries after the vote.

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HAKEEM JEFFRIES: 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.

SPRUNT: Few of these controversial policies are likely to advance in the Senate, where lawmakers are expected to vote this month on their own version of the defense package.

Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, Washington. 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.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.