Abortion debate could snarl Congress’ work on the defense budget

The issue of abortion in the military is already slowing senior Defense Department nominations. It could hijack the Pentagon’s budget process next.

That’s because numerous Republican lawmakers are expected to try to ban all abortion access policies for troops in upcoming authorization and appropriations bills set for congressional debate next month. And Democrats will push for even wider access to the procedure. Depending on each side’s success, it could threaten whether the military will receive its funding for next fiscal year in a timely manner, if at all.

For now, the issue is not a key focus of the House or Senate drafts of the annual defense authorization bill, a massive budget policy measure that includes hundreds of specialty pay renewals and new policy priorities for the department.

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The House Armed Services Committee debated changes to the legislation for more than 14 hours earlier this month, but did not cover the military’s abortion policies at all. Republican lawmakers said they expect the issue to be raised on the House floor instead.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, behind closed doors, did broach the issue, adopting language calling for a study into the department’s existing rules, which allow troops and some eligible family members to receive travel stipends and paid leave if they need to cross state lines to legally have an abortion procedure.

However, Republicans said that fell well short of their goals of overturning the department’s policies. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she plans to push for an amendment blocking the abortion access rules when the measure comes before the full Senate.

“This is not a policy that the Defense Department should even have put in play,” she said. “We’re not going to wait for the House to do something. It’s important that we take it up here.”

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., since March has been holding up all senior military promotions and confirmations because of his opposition to the Pentagon abortion access policies. His staff last week said those holds will remain in place “unless the DoD rescinds the policy” or unless Congress votes to approve the existing options.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Tuberville’s holdup of defense nominees “outrageous” and said that Tuberville “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” when it comes to the legality of the policy.

Meanwhile, House Republican appropriators earlier this month adopted a funding plan for the Defense Department for fiscal 2024 which included a full repeal of the military abortion access policy. Democrats on the panel unsuccessfully tried to remove the language, and vowed to fight against it again when the measure comes up for a full chamber vote.

In addition, several female Democratic lawmakers are planning an amendment to the House authorization bill to eliminate restrictions in current law which prohibit the Defense Department from using any funds to provide abortion services. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., who is among those leading the House effort, called it an issue of fairness and readiness.

“Our military families sacrifice so much for us, yet too many of my colleagues have decided that our armed forces should not have something as fundamental as bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom,” she said in a statement. “To be ready to fight tomorrow’s wars, we must recruit and retain the brightest minds and fiercest fighters this country has to offer. We don’t do that by telling service women, spouses, and their families they can’t seek reproductive care – care that is available to their civilian counterparts.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is expected to offer similar legislation in the Senate in the next few weeks.

In past years, leaders from both parties have tried to keep controversial topics off the authorization and appropriations bills in an effort to ensure funding for the military isn’t disrupted by political fights. Their efforts have been met with mixed success. This year, having abortion as part of the inter-chamber negotiations on military spending appears inevitable.

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Both Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I. and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said after finishing their respective authorization bill drafts that they hope to move quickly on the legislation, with an eye towards passage before Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

But if lawmakers on either political extreme balk on the abortion issue, it could drag negotiations well into the fall. An appropriations delay past the Oct. 1 deadline could trigger a partial government shutdown, unless a temporary extension is adopted. Failure to find a compromise on the authorization bill would break a streak of 62 consecutive years passing that legislation.

The showdowns will start the week of July 10, when lawmakers from both chambers are scheduled to return from a two-week break and House leaders plan to start general debate on the authorization bill.