Policy

Defense Bill Passes After Democrats Last-Ditch Attempts to Change it

Lawmakers say bill's language could open door to discrimination

There is a chance the issue could come up again when the Senate and House try to reconcile their versions of the defense authorization bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House passed a sweeping defense bill Wednesday night that would authorize $602.2 billion for the Pentagon and defense-related programs in fiscal 2017.  

But the 277-147 vote reflected the unease among many Democrats about provisions within the bill, including language many lawmakers fear would open the door for federal contractors to discriminate based on sexual orientation or sexual identity.  

In fact, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith , D-Wash., voted against the bill, citing the "religious protections" provision for contractors as the "last straw."    

He and others also objected to the way the measure shifted $18 billion from war operations to pay for new weapons and facilities improvements.  

Even the Confederate flag was raised during the spirited evening debate. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., made a motion to recommit the bill to committee until it came back with an amendment that would withhold support for the Citadel military college because it flies the Confederate flag. That measure failed.  

[Confederate Flag Issue Rises Above In Congress]

Earlier, a bipartisan group of lawmakers  pushed for an amendment that would have stripped the religious protections provision from the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) . The amendment was not included among the more than 180 cleared by the House Rules Committee Monday and Tuesday.  

[Defense Authorization Debate Begins in House]

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said Tuesday night he was "outraged" that the measure remained in the House bill.  

“Congress owes it to LGBT workers and their families to ensure that they are equally protected by our laws and not singled out for mistreatment," he said in a statement.  

[LGBT Provision Divides GOP]

At issue is a provision for protections and exemptions to "any religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society" that receives a federal contract.  

[Standoff Brewing Over LGBT Provision in Defense Bill]

The provision was added to the NDAA by Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., during a late-night markup in April.  

Russell's amendment would apply to "any branch or agency of the federal government," not just defense contracts.    

Gay rights advocates objected, saying the measure would undermine a 2014 executive order  that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating against Americans based on their sexuality and gender identity.    

[Will Pro-LGBT Stance Hurt GOP Senators?]

Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., agreed that such discrimination could be an unintended consequence of the broad language. He and four Republicans and four Democrats this week offered the unsuccessful amendment that would have cut the provision.  

"Speaker Ryan’s pledges of regular order, transparency and openness continue to ring more hollow each and every day," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. "Democrats will continue to insist that this provision be removed from the Defense Authorization bill."  

The defense authorization bill must now be reconciled with a Senate measure, which could come up for a vote this month. President Barack Obama has said he would veto the bill the House developed.  

John M. Donnelly contributed to this report.  Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.