House and Senate on Defense Bill Collision Course

A standoff over social issues may derail a $900 billion budget bill.

WSJ (“Senate Passes Defense Bill, Setting Up Fight Over Abortion, Transgender Care“):

The Democratic-led Senate passed its version of the annual defense-policy bill with broad bipartisan support, putting the legislation on a collision course with the Republican-controlled House, which narrowly voted earlier this month to add contentious provisions that would restrict abortion access and transgender healthcare for troops.

The vote was 86-11.

“What’s happening in the Senate is a stark contrast to the partisan race to the bottom we saw in the House, where House Republicans are pushing partisan legislation that has zero chance of passing,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), ahead of the Senate vote. Schumer noted that the Senate process included votes on 98 amendments, many of them bipartisan.

“This is really important for our country,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).

The Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2024, or NDAA, does share some central similarities with the House-passed version: Both would authorize $886 billion in spending on national security, including a 5.2% pay raise for service members and the Defense Department’s civilian workforce, and green light $300 million in security assistance for Ukraine.

But senators largely sidestepped the polarizing social issues that had roiled the House a few weeks earlier, when members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus demanded and won amendment votes related to abortion and transgender care for service members.

Both amendments narrowly passed the House, mostly along party lines. One would overturn a Pentagon policy allowing troops leave and travel funds for reproductive healthcare—including abortion—and the other would prevent the Defense Department or Tricare, the military’s healthcare program, from providing gender-related surgeries and hormone treatments for transgender people.

House Republicans said they were delivering on their promise to end what they saw as the Biden administration’s inappropriate “social experiment” on the military, while Democrats complained that Republicans had hijacked a national-security bill to push a far-right political agenda. 

Whether not funding abortion access or sex changes is a “far-right agenda” is debatable. The Hyde Amendment has been the law of the land for decades and transgender issues remain genuinely controversial. Still, they’re a weird hill to die on on a massive spending bill that has long been viewed—unlike other spending bills—as “must pass.”

Senators mostly avoided the controversy—for now—by skipping floor votes on any amendments dealing with abortion access and transgender treatments in the military.

Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.), who opposes abortion, said adding an abortion amendment was too controversial to consider. “One way to gum up the works at this point is to get off into divisive issues like abortion,” Kennedy said. 

Kennedy is hardly a centrist. But, for a variety of reasons, the Senate tends to be more pragmatic than the House. Tommy Tuberville notwithstanding, Senators typically understand that there’s not much point in fighting over things that can’t get 60 votes.

Lawmakers will now work behind closed doors to negotiate a compromise that combines the House and Senate NDAAs. Typically centrists from both parties come together to ensure the final product of these talks can pass both chambers by large margins, but the process could be complicated this year by divided government and culture-war politics as the country heads into next year’s elections.

The NDAA increases funding for military recruiting and advertising, implements higher standards for enlisted barracks and boosts investments in microelectronics, hypersonic weapons and drones.

One amendment, added to the bill with support from senators of both parties, would prevent any president from leaving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization without Senate approval.

Other bipartisan provisions would give the administration emergency powers to stop the trafficking of fentanyl and strengthen the Treasury Department’s enforcement over the use of crypto in illicit finance.

It’s not obvious what the latter have to do with Defense appropriations but Congress is a strange creature and “must pass” bills do tend to get some interesting add-ons.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Military Affairs, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    transgender issues remain genuinely controversial

    I just want to be clarify what exactly is being proposed here: people in the military do not have access to any healthcare besides that provided by the military. Veterans do not have access to any healthcare besides that provided by Tricare. People using the Affordable Care Act exchanges do not have access to other healthcare. People who live near hospital systems that receive federal funding do not have access to other healthcare.

    By banning funding for gender affirming care in all those sources, as proposed, we would be de facto banning transition for all but a tiny sliver of people who are wealthy enough to be able to fund their transitions entirely out of pocket.

    This is a profoundly extreme position that would condemn millions of Americans to a tortuous existence, and I find myself unable to comprehend the sort of mind that can just glibly handwave that off as “transgender issues remain genuinely controversial”.

  2. Daryl says:

    …and transgender issues remain genuinely controversial.

    They are only controversial because they are the current focus of the right wing anger machine, and there is NOTHING genuine about the right wing anger machine.

  3. DK says:

    The Hyde Amendment has been the law of the land for decades

    The Hyde Amendment restricts travel? Or is that what the fight itself is about?

  4. Kathy says:


    Exactly. It’s controversial the same way vaccines are. No the medical consensus of the professionals involved in the field is settled in both cases.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: @Daryl: Before 2016—and from 2017-2021—the military excluded trans individuals unless they served in their biological sex. So, even through most of the Obama Administration, there was no sense that servicemembers or veterans had a right to gender reassignment surgery or other treatments at taxpayer expense. While there’s obviously a lot of rabble rousing on the part of Fox and GOP politicians, this is a relatively new issue on which we’re far from public consensus.

    @DK: “Hyde Amendment” has long since come to mean all similar provisions in Federal law, which have gone well beyond Medicaid for decades now. See this CRS report, for example.

  6. Daryl says:

    @James Joyner:
    From Wikipedia;

    The United States Armed Forces have a long history of transgender service personnel, dating back to at least the Civil War. Initially, most such service members were women, who disguised themselves as men in order to serve in combat roles.

    And then there is this

  7. Modulo Myself says:

    Pretty telling how quickly the anti-trans bigots go from banning gender-affirming care for children to banning it for adults.

    And something like 65% of Americans support abortion rights. There’s no real argument left about the supposed controversy.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Daryl: Sigh. As noted in the comment you’re replying to, the US military didn’t allow trans people to serve openly until 2016 and then again from 2021-present. And, certainly, we weren’t funding transition surgery. There’s just no disputing this.

    @Modulo Myself: That the medical profession on board with something doesn’t mean that it’s settled politics. And, if the 35% who vehemently oppose abortion are concentrated in states that constitute half of the Senate’s representation, they’re going to have outsize power.

  9. Daryl says:

    @James Joyner:
    Pardon my digression into the fabulous Max Klinger…
    To my original point;
    It was controversial for blacks to serve until 75 years ago when Truman said it wasn’t, although it had happened before that.
    It was controversial for women to serve until 1948, although it had happened before that.
    It was controversial for homosexuals to serve until 2011 when the DADT abomination of 1993 was repealed, although it had happened before that.
    Equality is always controversial because bigotry exists. To me the controversy lies in how and why we allow ignorant and hate-filled bigots to direct our discourse.

  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    There’s just no disputing this.

    I dispute it. Transgender service wasn’t originally banned prior to 1960, under executive order 10450 and this ban was not actually implemented until 1963 under Army Regulation 40-501. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Secondly, even if we accept your argument that transgender service is something new and controversial, this plan goes far beyond that. It bans privately paid for TRICARE plans from providing gender affirming care. It bans private companies that receive federal funding from paying for private insurance that provides gender affirming care. It bans private insurance sold on the ACA exchanges from providing gender affirming care. It bans medicare and medicaid patients from receiving gender affirming care. It bans hospitals that treat medicare or medicaid patients from providing gender affirming care to non-medicare and non-medicaid patients.

    This is an attempt to impose a de facto ban on transgender people being able to obtain treatment. If that’s what you want then stop beating around the bush with wish-washy “but it’s controversial” crap and just admit you support banning care for transgender people.

    Finally, yes: taxpayers should have to pay for transgender care even if they disagree with it. The same way I’m required to fund a vast military chaplain system that I vehemently oppose the existence of. Because we live in a society where sometimes we don’t get to force our beliefs on everyone else.

  11. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Dude, James does not support banning care for transgender people. He’s said so specifically, and so has Steven. I appreciate their personal support.

    As recently as 20 years ago, you could not be out and gay in the military, and that is going to be confounded with being trans by the general public, and that includes a lot of military brass.

    I support gender-affirming care within the military system. I understand I’m going to have to fight for it. You’re in the fight, too, that’s good. But try to aim at the enemy, ok?

  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Dude, James does not support banning care for transgender people.

    As I’ve now pointed out twice, this extends far beyond the military and applies to any person touching the publicly supported parts of the healthcare system (which is pretty much the entire health care system). If someone supports cutting off access to anything that touches that funding, then yes, they do support banning care for transgender people. The only question is whether they’re willing to admit it or not.

  13. Modulo Myself says:

    @James Joyner:

    Well on one side, you have trans people, doctors, science, and in this case the military. And on the other you have what? Just your basic right-wing lynch mob. It’s just far-right bigotry and paranoia. Nothing more, nothing less. The issue is done and settled.

    And abortion is even more settled for real humans, not Federalist Society hacks. The military requires young people. Imagine joining up and being told that your health insurance is ruled by the stupidest, dumbest, most bigoted Panhandle hick imaginable. “What Jethro says goes, sorry. Oh wait, Jethro was just arrested for child porn. Let’s go down the line to Jim Bob Jr and see what he says about your reproductive rights.”

  14. Gustopher says:

    Whether not funding abortion access or sex changes is a “far-right agenda” is debatable.

    It’s been a while since I saw someone who is basically reasonable* use the term “sex change” rather than “gender affirming care.” Clearly Dr. Joyner and I have some very different media consumption habits, and absorb different language.

    Bravo to the fine folks that have worked at pushing the newer, better language into society. I hadn’t noticed how pervasive the new language is until just now.

    And on the right wing bigot front, “sex change” is falling out of favor because you cannot change your sex, and they use much worse terms like “genital mutilation” that are trying to be offensive.

    I mean very little by way of criticism of our host by pointing this out, he just sounds so … old?

  15. Daryl says:


    “…and they use much worse terms like “genital mutilation” that are trying to be offensive.”

    Just wait until they hear about circumcision!!!

  16. al Ameda says:

    The Hyde Amendment has been the law of the land for decades and transgender issues remain genuinely controversial.

    I would say that “transgender issues are controversial.”
    Republicans have successfully turned transgender issues into a Culture War Talking Point.

    And the Hyde Amendment, don’t get me started on Henry Hyde.
    Hyde was a world class hypocrite, even by the standard of his day and even today. He went after Bill Clinton’s ‘indiscretion’ even as he engaged in his own ‘youthful indiscretion.’ But I digress, the Hyde Amendment still applies today.

  17. anjin-san says:

    @James Joyner:

    a lot of rabble rousing

    Oh, is that what we call blasts of white-hot hate with overtones of "we don't recognize your right to exist" these days?

  18. wr says:

    Where is MR to explain that this is all the fault of the left since some college student somewhere demanded rights for trans people?

  19. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: Honestly, while I support the right of adults to get the treatment necessary to live the lives they want, I find “gender-affirming care” rather Orwellian.

  20. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I find “gender-affirming care” rather Orwellian.

    No, that would be “gender-corrective care”…

  21. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner: “sex change” covers a very small amount of the transition — and seems to assume no ongoing care. Even if you don’t get into the “trans men/women were always men/women” argument, it just seems like a very incomplete phrasing.

    But, again, not meant as terrible criticism. Just an odd bit of old language that you cling to, despite having generally decent-enough views about trans rights.

    It’s hard to be perfectly supportive of people whose struggles you don’t really understand. With the more boring same-sex-attraction-part-of-queer rights* that affect me most directly, I’ve learned to count as allies anyone who backs away from the people who are doing deliberate harm, even if those “allies” are personally problematic.**

    Our trans commentariat might feel differently, as they are more directly under attack right now.

    *: There’s a desire among the Log Cabin crowd to try to separate LGB from TQIA+, and I refuse to give an inch, so weirdly awkward phrasing it is. Plus, I know they will chuck the B next… and anyone poly, and anyone of a lower tax bracket, and anyone who votes Democratic, and brown folks, or anyone with fun colored hair…

    **: The Log Cabin crowd are not my allies, even if they do support marriage equality.