The Republican-controlled House voted late Wednesday to block the Department of Veterans Affairs from updating its motto to include female veterans.
The VA would not be able to "modify or remove any display" of the mission statement it adopted 64 years ago under an amendment passed as part of an annual VA spending bill. The motto refers only to male veterans and was based on a line in President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan."
The new motto chosen by the VA hews closely to the original but acknowledges women who have served the country, as well as other surviving spouses and family members: "To fulfill President Lincoln's promise to care for those who have served in our nation's military and for their families, caregivers and survivors."
VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the motto change in March, timed for Women's History Month. The announcement came after two surveys of 30,000 veterans, focus groups and years of lobbying by advocacy groups, mostly prominently the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
But Republicans have bristled at what they claim are efforts to "erase" Lincoln's quote.
"It's a good quote," Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who sponsored the amendment, said on the House floor. "It's an historic quote. The fact is we should not use taxpayer dollars to allow this administration to unilaterally change the VA's historic motto and erase the words of President Lincoln to appease the radical left and advance yet another one of their cultural revisionist efforts."
The amendment, which was approved on a nearly party-line, 221-212 vote, would effectively prevent the VA from adopting the new motto.
The amendment adds to an array of provisions Republicans already inserted into the bill targeting VA efforts to be more welcoming to historically marginalized groups of people, including language to bar the department from providing abortions or gender-affirming health care.
Partisan policy riders are often added to initial drafts of annual government spending bills, only to be taken out during negotiations on the final bill that becomes law.
But the volume of riders in this year's House bills, coupled with far-right lawmakers' demands to keep them in and enact deep cuts to non-military and non-veterans government spending, may mean lawmakers won't be able to fund the government by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 without acquiescing to some of the hard-liners' demands.
Prior to McDonough's announcement, VA officials would sometimes use more gender-neutral language in internal messages, but the original wording is still emblazoned on bronze plaques on more than half of the department's buildings.
The VA has estimated the total cost to replace or remove all plaques, stationery or other signs bearing the old motto will be less than $2 million. That includes signs the Trump administration installed at all 145 VA cemeteries in 2020 as it strongly resisted calls to change the motto.
So far, no signage has been changed to the new motto, McDonough said at a news conference Wednesday, adding that the department expects to roll out its plans to replace signage after August.
While McDonough would not comment directly on his stance on the House amendment, he said he feels "very strongly" he made the right decision on the motto.
"On Sunday afternoon, I heard again from a senior, very senior, veteran how excited she is and how appreciative she is of the new mission statement," McDonough said.
Democrats in Congress sharply criticized Roy's amendment.
"This is 2023," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee subpanel in charge of VA spending, said on the floor. "It's hard to imagine that we are actually debating a motto on the floor of the House of Representatives and having a member of Congress suggesting that that motto should remain exclusive of women."
One Democrat, Rep. Mary Peltola of Alaska, crossed party lines to support the amendment, and two Republicans, Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Nancy Mace of South Carolina, opposed the amendment.
The House is expected to approve the full VA spending bill Thursday afternoon largely along party lines. It will then need to be reconciled with the Senate's VA spending plan, which received bipartisan support in the Senate Appropriations Committee last month and does not include any of the controversial policy riders contained in the House bill.
The White House earlier this week threatened to veto the House VA bill because of "partisan policy provisions with devastating consequences."
-- Patricia Kime contributed to this report.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.