Pentagon Abortion, Transgender Policies Safe, But Diversity Programs Take a Hit in Compromise Defense Bill

The U.S Capitol
The U.S Capitol is seen on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

The Defense Department policy of covering travel and leave for service members seeking abortions will remain intact under a compromise version of the annual must-pass defense policy bill released Wednesday night.

Existing health care for transgender troops and dependents was also left untouched by the negotiated National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that members of the House and Senate unveiled after months of hearings and negotiations.

Both have been political hot-button issues that now appear unlikely to change due to the omissions in one of the year's most important defense bills. While issues Democrats considered red lines that would force them to vote against the bill were dropped from the compromise legislation, conservatives notched some modest wins on provisions to curtail diversity and inclusion initiatives.

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Negotiations over this year's NDAA turned into a culture-war minefield after the House loaded its version of the defense bill with a slew of proposals targeting what Republicans deride as "wokeness" in the military.

Most prominently, the version of the bill the House passed in July would have ended the Pentagon's post-Roe v. Wade policy of providing travel funds and leave for service members who need to travel out of state to obtain an abortion. It also would have banned the Pentagon from providing gender affirmation care to transgender troops and dependents.

Neither the abortion measure nor transgender health-care restrictions are in the compromise bill.

Also not in the final bill is a ban on drag shows on military bases. The Defense Department earlier this year announced it was banning drag shows, something the NDAA negotiators noted in their report explaining the compromise agreement.

The bill does include a ban on displaying "unapproved" flags, a provision intended to target LGBTQ+ pride flags. But Defense Department policy already prohibits flying unofficial flags, a policy that was put in place in 2020 to rid military bases of the Confederate flag but that also applies to pride flags.

The bill also curbs diversity initiatives in several ways. While the compromise does not go as far as the House-passed bill in entirely eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs, it would freeze any new DEI jobs until the Government Accountability Office delivers a report on the DEI workforce. The bill would also cap pay for civilian DEI employees.

The bill would also ban teaching "critical race theory" at military academies and during military training. But it narrowly defines critical race theory, an academic framework for studying systemic racism, as the "theory that individuals, by virtue of race, ethnicity, color, or national origin, bear collective guilt and are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past."

The language on critical race theory stipulates that the bill does not "supersede the institutional autonomy or academic freedom of instructors" to choose their own teaching materials.

The compromise bill also includes a "parent's bill of rights" to allow Department of Defense Education Activity parents to review their school's curriculum, instructional materials and all books in the school library. The provision has been likened to conservative efforts at the state and local levels to restrict teaching about LGBTQ+ and racial issues.

One anti-diversity provision that was taken out of the final bill was a measure to ban affirmative action at the military service academies.

Meanwhile, service members who were discharged for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine could also apply to be reinstated at the rank held when they were separated and without the discharge affecting future career advancement -- but only if they had requested a religious, administrative or medical waiver from the vaccine mandate.

That's narrower than the original House-passed provision, which would have applied to anyone discharged over their vaccine refusal.

Service members can already apply to rejoin the military if they were discharged for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, which is no longer mandated. Service officials testified at a Senate hearing on Wednesday that just about 50 troops have sought to come back since the vaccine mandate ended.

Far-right Republicans are fuming that the restrictions on abortion access and transgender health care weren't included in the final bill, with lawmakers such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., saying she will vote "HELL NO."

But the conservative griping isn't expected to jeopardize the bill becoming law.

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees endorsed the compromise in a joint statement Thursday morning, calling it a "bipartisan and bicameral conference report that strengthens our national security and supports our service members."

The Senate is beginning procedural votes on the bill Thursday, and both chambers are expected to pass it before the end of the year.

Beyond culture-war issues, the compromise NDAA encompasses a wide range of important military issues. Here are some other highlights:

  • Guardsmen and reservists who are non-birthing parents, adoptive parents and foster parents would be granted parental leave, giving reserve components the same benefit as their active-duty counterparts.
  • The Pentagon would have to establish militarywide minimum standards for the habitability of barracks.
  • The Defense Department would have to fund a study on the use of psychedelic drugs as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. A proposal that was included in the House-passed bill for the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs to team up on a study of medical marijuana for veterans was not included in the final bill.
  • The bill would mandate a study on the "feasibility and advisability" of requiring unanimous votes in court-martial verdicts. That's significantly watered down from the House-passed provision to mandate unanimous verdicts.
  • Funding for any new construction at the Space Command headquarters would be blocked until the Pentagon inspector general and GAO complete reviews of the Biden administration's decision to keep the headquarters in Colorado instead of moving it to Alabama.
  • Rather than creating a Space National Guard as proposed in the House bill, the compromise bill would mandate a study on whether to transfer space functions of the Air National Guard to the Space Force.
  • The compromise bill entirely drops an expansion of a fund meant to compensate people exposed to radiation from U.S. nuclear tests and waste. The omission is infuriating Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. Hawley has vowed to throw up every procedural roadblock he can against the NDAA, which would delay but not endanger final passage of the bill.

Related: Showdown Looming: Senate Takes Moderate Route, House Pushes Culture Wars in Annual Defense Bill

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