Why House Republicans turned a routine military spending bill into an “ode to bigotry”

A queer soldier with a Pride flag on her uniform touches her heart.
Photo: Shutterstock

Sometimes in politics you do things to make a statement, even though you know it will fail. You make your point and then you move on.

Then there’s the House Freedom Caucus. The far-right group of Republicans in Congress is somehow convinced through magical thinking that it can singlehandedly roll back LGBTQ+ rights and restrict abortion rights even further by going after bills that in the past had generally sailed through Congress with bipartisan support.

Last Friday, the House voted 219-210 to pass a defense spending bill that includes a number of amendments specifically targeting LGBTQ+ service members, as well as new restrictions on abortion coverage for service members. Under the measure, the military will no longer pay for gender-affirming medical care for transgender troops, allow the pride flag to fly at military installations, or pay for personnel to travel for abortions if they live in a state that restricts them. None of these social issues have anything to do with defense spending, but the right sees an opportunity to make a statement.

“What was once an example of compromise and functioning government has become an ode to bigotry and ignorance,” Armed Services Democrats said in a statement.

The bill passed almost entirely with Republican support (four Democrats joined the majority, while four Republicans voted against the bill).

The measure is essentially dead in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but that doesn’t mean the drama or the risks are over. Once the Senate passes its version, the two chambers of Congress then meet in conference to hammer out a compromise version that will then represent the final spending measure.

The question is why did the majority of Republicans decide to vote in favor of the amendments, knowing full well that Democrats will never agree to any of them. The answer is, like all things Republican these days, tied up in the weird logic of the MAGA world and its limited hold on power.

For one, a lot of the problem has to do with the GOP’s five-seat majority in the House. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy lives in a state of perpetual grovel to is far-right members. One wrong move from them and they can force him out. Remember, it took 15 humiliating votes and endless concessions by McCarthy for him to finally clinch the speakership. He’s not about to jeopardize it now.

So if the House Freedom Caucus wants to posture, McCarthy is going to let them posture. The problem is, he’s committed to only passing bills with a Republican majority, so then he has to make sure that virtually every Republican lines up behind the bigotry that the right-wing wants to push. In short, the minority dictates what the rest of the party gets to do.

The rest of the party holds their noses and votes to go along with the bigotry because they don’t want to deal with the drama of having McCarthy kicked out and having to find some other masochist willing to endure the torture of being Speaker of the House under these circumstances. Of course, many in the party believe in the bigotry in the first place, so it’s not that much of a stretch.

For the few remaining moderates who object, they expect that the most offensive amendments will be removed in conference. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) reportedly called the abortion provision “an asshole move” – and voted for it anyway.

However, counting on all the worst amendments being removed in conference may be wishful thinking. The Freedom Caucus would be happy to grind government to a halt to make its point. Moreover, as a concession to get the votes he needed, McCarthy named Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) to the conference committee, even though she lacks the standing that would normally grant her that privilege.

What’s likely to happen in the end is that some really bad parts of the GOP bill get stripped, but not everything. There’s going to have to be some sop to the right for House Republicans to vote to pass the spending bill. Maybe it’s a some promise to crack down on diversity initiatives, but whatever it is, the compromise will mean the military will be a little less enlightened than it was.

The compromise will also mean a victory for the far right, which will only embolden them to keep trying until they get what they want: a full repeal of rights for LGBTQ+ military personnel.

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