October 25, 2019 at 3:27 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Trans service could be casualty of ‘skinny’ defense bill
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has proposed a “skinny” defense bill that will likely leave out transgender service members. (Photo pubic domain)

With House and Senate negotiators having reached a stalemate over major defense spending legislation, one proposed solution — a “skinny” bill that would focus on pay for U.S. military personnel and military construction projects — would likely leave transgender service members out in the cold.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, floated the idea of “skinny” bill in a statement Thursday amid the standoff over the fiscal year 2020 defense authorization bill.

“To keep all options on the table, next week I intend to introduce a ‘skinny’ defense bill to ensure that Congress is able to extend necessary authorities, take care of our troops and their families, authorize military construction projects and conduct oversight over military acquisition programs,” Inhofe said. “A skinny bill is not a substitute for a full bill, but it might be a necessary next step if we don’t reach an agreement soon.”

Although transgender service has been a hot-button issue in defense negotiations, the major sticking point seems to be another issue: Whether the legislation should include explicit language barring President Trump from using Defense Department funds to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, denounced the idea of a “skinny” bill in a statement Thursday, saying it would be “equivalent to failure.”

“Authorizing our country’s national defense enterprise is difficult work and as one of Congress’ most serious responsibilities, it should not be taken lightly,” Smith said. “Rather than give up, we will continue to push forward and work with our colleagues across the aisle and in both chambers, as well as the White House. I am confident we can reconcile our differences and put the country first.”

But time is indeed running out. The House is set to go into recess in early November and both chambers of Congress are in session for only eight days before Thanksgiving. Once lawmakers return, both the House and Senate would have just another eight working days before the holiday recess in mid-December.

It should be noted fiscal year 2020 started Sept. 30, so legislation authorization military spending for that period is already one month late.

It remains to be seen whether Congress will resort to a “skinny” bill to authorize defense funds. But if Inhofe gets his way, that will likely thwart efforts by House Democrats to overturn President Trump’s transgender military ban, which the Defense Department implemented in April.

Before the House and Senate went into conference for defense negotiations, the House voted 242-187 in favor of the “Harry Truman” amendment as part of its version of the legislation. The amendment, introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), is so named because is modeled after the executive order President Truman signed in 1948 to desegregate the military.

The Speier amendment would not only restore transgender military service, but prohibit the U.S. armed forces from discriminating against LGBT service members.

The amendment states the military must consider applicants based on gender-neutral occupational standards and military occupational specialty, but “may not include any criteria relating to the race, color, national origin, religion or sex (including gender identity or sexual orientation) of an individual.”

Further, the amendment states any Defense Department personnel policy for members of the armed forces “shall ensure equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces, without regard to race, color, national origin, religion and sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation).”

That’s unlikely to fly in any “skinny” legislation proposed by Inhofe, who has a long anti-LGBT record and once proposed codifying Trump’s transgender military ban into law. (UPDATE: Marta Hernandez, an Inhofe spokesperson, told the Blade the specifics of the “skinny” bill are “not yet final.”)

Monica Matoush, a Smith spokesperson, told the Blade when asked about the Speier amendment her boss — as top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee — remains committed to all provisions in the House legislation. 

“Chairman Smith remains committed to continuing to work through the current NDAA conference process with his focus being on maintaining provisions contained in the House version of the bill,” Motoush said.

Earlier this month, a senior Democratic aide said Senate Democrats were buckling in negotiations on keeping the Speier amendment in the defense bill. It’s unclear whether that remains the case.

A spokesperson for Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), top Democrat in the Senate Armed Services Committee, has previously denied that, but didn’t respond to the Blade’s request to comment for this article.

Even if the measure were approved as part of final defense package, it will continue to face challenges. After all, Republicans still have a slim majority in the Senate and Trump would have to be willing to sign a defense bill that would overturn a transgender ban he implemented.

The Speier amendment isn’t the only LGBT provision in the House version of the defense authorization bill. 

Another is an amendment introduced by Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) seeking a report from the Defense Department on waivers granted under the transgender ban. The third is an amendment from Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) seeking to ensure service members expelled under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have honorable discharges in their records.

Andy Blevins, executive director of the pro-LGBT Modern Military Association of America, encouraged lawmakers to hold firm to the Speier amendment in any legislation that comes to the floor.

“MMAA continues to call on senators to ensure Rep. Speier’s non-discrimination amendment is included in the final NDAA conference report,” Blevins said. “This bi-partisan measure passed with strong support in the House, and it would ensure anyone who is capable, qualified and willing can serve in our nation’s military. We agree with the far majority of Americans who believe what matters for military service is whether someone can accomplish the mission, not their gender identity.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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