President Trump removed a contentious obstacle to House Republicans’ defense-spending package with his Wednesday announcement banning transgender people from serving in the military, but the measure may still have issues moving forward.
Trump announced that he would ban transgender people from serving in the military in any capacity after a House panel failed to add an amendment from Rep. Vicky Hartzler to a four-bill defense-spending package. The amendment would have barred the military from paying for gender-reassignment surgery. Its failure left some conservatives unhappy and unsure that they would vote for the defense bill.
However, Trump’s move—which is strongly opposed by Democrats and drew many critics Wednesday—removed that issue from contention among House Republicans. Particularly for social conservatives, the ban was more than what they expected and it greases the wheels for a defense package that includes funding for a border wall, a key Trump campaign promise.
“I think it goes beyond what we needed to solve the problem,” Rep. Trent Franks said. “It solves the concern that we had that somehow the military-defense bill was being used as sort of a mule for all of the left-wing social experiments that they can’t get heard any other way.”
The move from Trump comes just as Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker announced in a Wednesday meeting of the conservative group that he and Speaker Paul Ryan had struck a deal. Walker had been pushing for leadership to bring all 12 appropriations bills to the floor in a single package before the August recess. Leaders, however, maintained that they don’t have the votes to do so.
Instead, Ryan promised Walker that he will bring the House’s budget blueprint, as well as the remaining eight appropriations bills, for a House vote in September. In exchange, Walker dropped his push for an amendment to the defense package that would have brought all 12 bills forward.
The two announcements remove the largest problems facing House leaders in passing the defense bill, but there still may be some in their ranks who will vote against the bill.
Others who had been pushing for a complete slate of spending bills may still vote against the defense package, for instance. Some members of the House Freedom Caucus were pushing for votes on all 12 bills and may not want to green-light an inflated defense budget without assurances of domestic or mandatory spending cuts.
“We had almost unanimous support for the 12 appropriations bills and we do not understand the move toward the four-bill approach,” HFC member Dave Brat said. “We lose eight bills with conservative policy built in that everyone worked so hard on.”
Members of the group are also pushing an amendment that would eliminate the budget-analysis division of the Congressional Budget Office. Although the amendment is a long shot, failing to win adoption could dissuade even more Freedom Caucus members from supporting the spending package.
Still, Franks, who is also in the Freedom Caucus, said he believes that the package will pass despite some objections.
“There might be some others who vote against the package because of their very valid fiscal concerns,” he said. But he added that in his opinion, “To place the defense of this country and the fiscal survival of this country juxtaposed against one another is a terrible mistake. These are two wings of the same plane, and to lose one of them is to crash.”
Leadership has been framing the measure as a substantive win heading into the August recess: It includes $1.6 billion for the construction of a wall along the southern border, sharply increases military spending and troop pay, and even increases funding for the Capitol Police. They also note that although the bill in its current form is unlikely to become law, passing it will increase the House’s leverage heading into negotiations with the Senate because it shows that the House can actually pass their spending bills.
Rep. Charlie Dent, an appropriations cardinal whose military-construction bill is one of the measures in the package, said he believes this vote may actually do the opposite. The measure provides $621 billion in military spending, but that number is likely to fall in a deal with the Senate.
“We’re raising expectations on a bill that will never become law,” he said. “What concerns me most is all the people who are told to vote for this initial launch, for the takeoff—a large number of them will not be there for the landing, for the real bill that counts.”
The same may end up being true with the money for a border wall. Republican leaders will ultimately need Democratic votes to pass any spending bill, and Democrats are unlikely to ever support funding for a border wall. So the question remains whether Republicans are setting themselves up for a letdown by pushing for border-wall funding now if it will be stripped out of a final measure.
Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro said members of her party are also unlikely to support the bill because it raises military spending above sequestration without turning off the automatic spending caps. Doing so, she said, would trigger automatic, across-the-board spending cuts, unless Congress can agree to a bipartisan budget deal.
“This is a gimmick,” she said. “People are going to vote for a pig in a poke. They don’t know what the hell they’re voting for because the numbers are not real.”