Culture War Political Fights Resurface as House Approves 19.5% Junior Enlisted Pay Raise and Senate Eyes 5.5%

The late-day sun shines on the U.S. Capitol building
The late-day sun shines on the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

A must-pass bill that would give junior enlisted troops a 19.5% pay raise is getting mired in the culture wars after House Republicans added amendments to roll back Pentagon policies on abortion and LGBTQ+ service members.

For the second year in a row, the House on Friday approved its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, mostly along party lines after conservative lawmakers used the bill to target their frequent foils. This year, that meant legislation originally crafted to focus on much-needed military quality-of-life improvements became a partisan messaging bill.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday evening also advanced its version of the NDAA, emerging from committee debate with a bipartisan product that would give junior enlisted troops a 5.5% pay bump and endorses busting open budget caps that Congress approved last year. While the Senate bill garnered bipartisan support, in a rare move, committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., opposed it because it did not adhere to the budget caps.

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In the House, the NDAA approved Friday still contains all the quality-of-life improvements that were approved by the House Armed Services Committee last month, including a 19.5% pay hike for E-1s through E-4s and a 4.5% raise for all other service members.

"There is no investment more important than the one we make in the men and women who serve in our all-volunteer force," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said in a statement after the bill passed. "We cannot kick the can down the road when it comes to providing for our service members."

The efforts to boost service members' well-being still have bipartisan support. But House Democrats turned against their chamber's NDAA as a whole after Republicans approved what the Democrats called "poison pill" amendments during this week's floor debate on the bill.

"By improving the quality of life of our service members and their families, Democrats and Republicans in the committee sent a clear message: We are dedicated to recruiting and retaining the strongest, most diverse fighting force," House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and the ranking members of the committee's subpanels said in a joint statement Thursday night.

However, they criticized the other measures added to the bill.

"The adoption of poison pill amendments attacking reproductive health care, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people of color undermines the purpose of the defense bill by demeaning service members and degrading our national defense," they said in the statement.

The bill passed in a 217-199 vote, with support from just six Democrats. Three Republicans, meanwhile, opposed the bill.

Among the amendments Republicans approved this week was one that would reverse the Pentagon's year-old policy of covering leave and travel for service members seeking abortions. Two Republicans -- Reps. John Duarte of California and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania -- voted against the amendment, while Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas supported it.

Also approved was a pair of amendments to bar the Pentagon from covering gender-affirmation health care for transgender troops and their dependents. Cuellar also crossed party lines to support those amendments, while Texas Rep. Tony Gonzales was the lone Republican to vote against them.

Republicans also targeted diversity initiatives in the military by passing amendments that would eliminate any military diversity office and fire any staff in them, institute a permanent hiring freeze on diversity-related jobs, and cut the Pentagon job of chief diversity officer.

One area where Republicans fell short was in putting back the Confederate memorial that was removed from Arlington National Cemetery last year. A proposed amendment from Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., to return the statue -- which included romanticized depictions of slavery -- to its original location was defeated when 24 Republicans joined with all Democrats to oppose it.

The anti-abortion access, anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-diversity amendments were all also approved by the House last year when it considered its initial version of that year's NDAA. But after negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate, the most controversial measures were scrapped from the final bill that became law.

With the Senate and White House still controlled by Democrats, a similar outcome is expected this year. The most divisive House amendments, including on abortion, were not included in the bill advanced by the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, committee staffers told reporters at a briefing Friday.

"My gut tells me that the final bill will look a little bit more like the Senate version than the House version," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters on a press call Friday, though he acknowledged a couple of House amendments might squeak through negotiations like they did last year.

During the Senate Armed Services Committee's debate about its NDAA this week, senators approved an amendment from Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking member of the committee, that endorses a $25 billion increase to the defense budget over what the Biden administration requested for fiscal 2025 and the level required under budget caps approved by Congress last year.

"My amendment to increase the budget top line is a down payment, and it keeps advancing the discussion," Wicker said in a statement Friday. "Negotiations need a starting point, and this is not the end. I will not give up on reaching a defense level that meets the moment."

The amendment includes an extra $1 billion to cover junior enlisted pay raises, but the rate of the raise was unchanged from what the personnel subcommittee approved earlier this week, committee staffers said. Under the bill, E-1s through E-3s would get a 5.5% raise, while every other service member would get a 4.5% raise.

Also included in the amendment is about $2.5 billion for facilities maintenance, some of which is intended for fixing dilapidated barracks, staffers said.

The NDAA is a policy bill, not a spending bill, meaning the money would still need to be included in an appropriations bill in order to become a reality.

While being a policy bill also means the NDAA is not subject to the budget caps, committee staffers said Reed felt the amendment sends the message to the Appropriations Committee that it should bust the caps, which would trigger a process for across-the-board government spending cuts known as a sequestration.

"I regret that I needed to vote against passage of this bill because it includes a funding increase that cannot be appropriated without breaking lawful spending caps and causing unintended harm to our military," Reed said in a statement. "I appreciate the need for greater defense spending to ensure our national security, but I cannot support this approach."

In addition to Reed, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., voted against the committee's NDAA, Kaine said.

Asked Friday how negotiators would overcome the wide gaps between the House and Senate bills, Senate committee staffers quipped, "That's part of the conference process every year."

Related: 5.5% vs. 19.5% Pay Raise: Senate Diverges from House on How Much to Boost Junior Enlisted Paychecks

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