Despite objections from the White House and LGBT advocates, the U.S. House late Wednesday night approved a major defense spending bill that includes a component undermining President Obama’s executive order against LGBT discrimination.
After hours of debate on the measure, the House approved the fiscal year 2017 defense authorization bill by a party-line vote of 277-147. Included in the $583 billion package is a provision inserted by Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) seeking to allow religious-affiliated federal contractors to continue to engage in anti-LGBT discrimination.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) praised the bill in a statement upon final passage, ignoring the anti-LGBT provision in the package.
“We need to build a 21st century military capable of confronting the evolving threats we face,” Ryan said. “However, gaping equipment and funding shortfalls are endangering our troops and making it harder for them to execute their missions. The NDAA will help close this readiness gap by modernizing and fully funding our forces. I hope the Senate will join us in passing this bill and sending it to the president’s desk.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said passage of the legislation demonstrates House Republicans share the same worldview as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“This reckless Republican Congress chose to push bigotry into the national defense bill that is supposed to protect every American,” Pelosi said. “Whatever their empty talk about being shocked by Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric, House Republicans’ votes utterly expose the reality of their own discriminatory agenda.”
Prior to vote on the final passage, Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who’s gay, jointly introduced a motion to recommit that would have removed the anti-LGBT language. Additionally, the measure would have prohibited The Citadel, a prominent military academy, from continuing to fly the Confederate Flag The motion to recommit failed by another party-line 243-181.
Clyburn said on the House floor the motion to recommit wouldn’t kill the bill, nor send it back to committee, but amend the package before proceeding to final passage.
“This amendment would fight discrimination in the military, which erodes obedience, unity, commitment and a spirited corps,” Clyburn said.
Maloney, who’s gay and a co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, spoke passionately in favor of adoption of the motion to recommit on the House floor.
“I never voted against the defense bill, and I never thought I would,” Maloney said. “My dad was a veteran and was never killed serving his country. He taught me to respect those who serve, and to speak plainly about right and wrong, so let me speak plainly now: This bill writes anti-gay bias in federal law.”
Maloney added as result of the anti-LGBT provision, the defense bill is no longer about protecting the troops or fighting the ISIS, but “bigotry, plain and simple.”
Referring to the motion to recommit, Maloney added, “This is not some procedural vote to be waived away. This is about whether we will affirm equal rights, or rationalize discrimination.”
“When my husband and I got married after waiting 22 years, so many of you expressed your support,” Maloney said. “Will you now look me in the eye and say it would be OK for me to lose my job over it?”
Representing Republicans in opposition to the motion to recommit was House Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who make the case against the measure by focusing on the importance of the bill for U.S. troops and defense.
Referring to final passage, Thornberry said, “Before any member votes ‘no,’ I hope they asked themselves whether they really want to send a message to our troops that, ‘Yep. That member would be supportive of the troops, if only,’ or ‘I’d really support the troops, but for,’ or, ‘I would really support the troops maybe when.’ I don’t think that’s really the right way to go.”
In a seemingly veiled reference to Maloney’s remarks and sexual orientation, Thornberry said of his committee, “Our members don’t always agree, but we’re able to work our way through our differences most of the time and think about the larger cause. You might say we sacrifice some of our individual differences, or preferences, in order to support the men and women who sacrifice so much for us.”
The provision would require the federal government when contracting with religious organizations to afford them exemptions consistent with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since neither of those laws prohibit anti-LGBT bias, the amendment would enable religious organizations doing business with the U.S. government to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Because the measure would have the force of law, it would overrule the executive order signed by President Obama in 2014 prohibiting contractors doing more than $10,000 a year in business with the U.S. government from engaging in anti-LGBT discrimination against employees. The president included no religious exemption in his order, although he left in place a Bush-era exemption allowing religious organizations contracting with the U.S. government to favor co-religionists in hiring practices.
The amendment provides an exemption for “any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution or religious society” contracting with the U.S. government. All of those terms are undefined in the amendment, but the lack of definition for “religious corporation” could allow courts to construe the term broadly applies to any federal contractor — not just religious organizations — in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in the Hobby Lobby case.
The Obama administration said it “strongly objects” to the provision in the defense authorization bill in a Statement of Administration Policy warning President Obama would veto the bill for a host of reasons, including language prohibiting the transfer of detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility without a plan approved by Congress. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Republicans included the anti-LGBT component “for reasons that seem rather perverse.”
Late Tuesday, the House Rules Committee had the opportunity to adopt a bipartisan proposal from Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) that would have removed the language, but rejected it on a 9-3 vote.
The next opportunity to remove the amendment the from the defense authorization bill will be after both chambers approve their versions of the defense authorization bill and have to hammer out the differences in conference committee. Unlike the House legislation, the Senate version of the defense authorization bill as it stands lacks the anti-LGBT language.
Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs for the Center for American Progress, condemned House Republicans in a statement for what she said was making the defense authorization bill “a vehicle to target vulnerable communities.”
“Despite the forceful and widespread public and business outcry against hateful, anti-LGBT legislation in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Indiana, conservatives have chosen — three times over — to import that hate into the halls of Congress,” Stachelberg said. “Taxpayer funds should never subsidize discrimination, and we will continue to work to ensure that when the NDAA finally reaches the president’s desk, it will treat all Americans fairly.”