No Abortions, Pride Flags or Transgender Care: Republicans Use Spending Bill to Block VA Policies

Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital Pride flag.
Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital held its first Pride flag raising ceremony on June 1, 2023. (VA photo by Louis Washkowiak, Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital Media Services)

House Republicans moved Tuesday to block the Department of Veterans Affairs from providing abortion services, flying LGBTQ+ pride flags at its facilities, and providing gender-affirmation surgery or hormones to transgender veterans.

The effort, made by GOP lawmakers in the annual VA spending bill, aims to stop the agency from following policies it sees as welcoming to women and LGBTQ+ people. Gay civil rights, transgender health care and abortion have all come under increasing attack from politicians on the right ahead of the 2024 presidential race.

The amendment to the spending bill barring the VA activities -- approved in a party-line 34-27 vote in the House Appropriations Committee -- takes aim at Biden administration policies that Republicans have spent months griping about. They vowed to roll back the policies when they took the House majority at the beginning of the year.

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"This is something that should be handled by Congress, not by the executive branch," Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, the sponsor of the amendment and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee's VA subcommittee, said about the VA's abortion policy.

The language is not likely to survive negotiations with the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats and where an effort to undo the VA's abortion policy already failed earlier this year. But it signals that House Republicans are digging in on their long-held grievances.

In response to last year's Supreme Court ruling that has allowed states to ban abortion, the VA last year started offering abortions for the first time in cases of rape, incest, or where the life or health of the mother is at risk from the pregnancy. As of February, the VA has provided 34 abortions under the policy, the department told Congress in a letter in March.

The VA and Democratic lawmakers maintain the VA's abortion policy is allowed by a 1996 law that requires the department to give needed medical care to veterans.

But Republicans immediately cried foul at the policy, arguing it violates a 1992 law that directed the VA to provide reproductive health care except for "infertility services, abortions or pregnancy care," unless that care is needed because of a service-connected condition.

In addition to barring funding for the abortion policy, the amendment approved Tuesday would also add language to the VA spending bill modeled off what's known as the Hyde Amendment. The Hyde Amendment is an annual rider included in the Health and Human Services spending bill that prohibits funding from being used for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or where the mother's life is endangered by the pregnancy.

The nonbinding report accompanying the bill also calls on the VA to regularly report to Congress on how many abortions it has provided under the policy and how much it has cost.

The amendment approved Tuesday also targets some LGBTQ+-focused policies, which Republicans nationwide have increasingly taken aim at. Republican state legislatures have particularly targeted transgender rights with hundreds of bills introduced this year across the country.

The appropriations amendment would prohibit the VA from providing "surgical procedures or hormone therapies for the purposes of gender affirming care." Doing so would not only block a yet-to-be implemented policy on surgery the Biden administration announced two years ago, it would also roll back coverage for hormone therapy the VA has offered since 2013.

The VA told last week it has no timeline for covering gender-affirmation surgery for transgender veterans despite saying in 2021 that it would take about two years to implement the policy. The department denied the delay is related to Republican criticism and the growing anti-trans movement.

The House measure would also prohibit the VA from flying any flag "other than the flag of the United States, the flag of a state, territory, or District of Columbia, the flag of an Indian tribal government, the flag of the department, the flag of an armed force, or the POW/MIA flag."

While the amendment does not specifically mention the Pride Flag, it comes after Republicans complained that the VA was displaying the rainbow flag at facilities this month, and Appropriations Committee members made clear that barring that flag is the intention of the amendment.

Rep. Michael Guest, R-Miss., who said he proposed the flag language, argued the amendment is needed to ensure the "work and the message of the VA is not divisive, is not controversial and is not promoting a particular gender ideology, but rather is respect[ful] of our veterans."

The amendment would also prohibit "any discriminatory action" from being taken against someone who believes "that marriage is, or should be recognized as, a union of one man and one woman." And it would block any funding from being used for the "purposes of diversity, equity, and inclusion training or implementation."

Democrats on Tuesday lambasted the amendment as a laundry list of Republican attacks on "wokeness," a term that conservatives have applied to a range of social policies they disagree with, often focusing on diversity and inclusion initiatives.

"I don't know if you know it, but simply looking at a Pride Flag will not make you gay," quipped openly gay Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who chairs the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus.

"But if this is the amendment to really be anti-woke, why are you stopping here? Let's go full gusto. Let me suggest some other things. Why don't we ban Bud Light? Because I believe drinking Bud Light makes you gay," he continued, referencing conservatives who are upset that the beer maker hired a transgender TikTok star to promote the drink.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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