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Senate aims to avoid culture war landmines in race to pass defense bill

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Schumer, who wants to see the defense bill passed before senators leave in August, warned of “toxic” amendments that could wreck the package.

Chief among these are measures related to the Pentagon’s policy to reimburse leave and travel for troops who cross state lines to obtain abortions.

The issue halted the normally rapid confirmation of top military promotions as Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) is blocking the process in an effort to force the Pentagon to reverse the abortion policy. The standoff has ensnared nearly 300 generals and admirals, including President Joe Biden’s pick to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior Army and Marine Corps officers.

Schumer offered Tuberville an abortion vote to break the deadlock. But Tuberville said that was not enough, insisting instead that the Pentagon first roll back its policy, which it says circumvents laws banning federal dollars for most abortions, before holding a vote to turn the policy into law.

“Like I told them, ‘Change it and then let’s vote,'” Tuberville told reporters.

“I’m getting to the point where (the) next vote we have on these candidates will be after we vote on a bill that will codify what they have,” Tuberville said. “But we need to change the policy upside down before we vote on it.”

Adding abortion language — either through a GOP effort to restrict the policy or through Democratic counterproposals to codify it — would make it nearly impossible for the Pentagon’s policy bill to get the votes needed to clear the Senate.

Sen. Roger Osier of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, predicted that the abortion policy debate would not occur under the defense bill.

The situation contrasts with the House, where the Speaker Kevin McCarthyThe narrow majority has forced him to respond to conservatives who may threaten his presidency. McCarthy cast votes on a variety of Conservative measures that were added to the bill, marking a hard right shift that saw nearly every House Democrat opposing the bill.

In the Senate, the 60-vote threshold means that any legislation must have bipartisan support to pass and renders most such proposals dead on arrival.

But even if the Senate skips a vote, the issue of abortion access does not go away. The House version of the defense policy bill would overturn the policy, a non-starter with Democrats that will need to be addressed as the two houses attempt to compromise on their competing versions.

THE House GOP Bill is packed with other hard-right provisions that won’t fly in the Democratic-led Senate, including restrictions on transgender medical care and significant limits on the Pentagon’s diversity and equity programs. Senate Republicans, however, won some provisions to curb diversity efforts.

The Senate voted last week on 13 mostly uncontroversial standalone defense amendments, up from none in the previous two years. But other fights could test this progress.

Debates could emerge over authorizing defense spending, either over GOP efforts to boost the bill’s $886 billion in revenue, or over progressive proposals to cut the Pentagon’s budget. Conservatives could also propose amendments to further limit the Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Another question is whether Schumer and the Democrats will fight to approve the transfer of nuclear submarines to Australia after Wicker blocked an attempt to include language in the bill. The move is a cornerstone of the AUKUS sub-compact Biden has with Australia and the UK and needs the green light from Congress.

Wicker and other defense hawks say they want additional funding first, arguing that the United States cannot build enough submarines for both countries without more money to bolster the industrial base. But a fight could be tough for Democrats in shipbuilding states who might agree that more money is needed to make submarines.

Schumer locked in a pair of votes targeting China when the Senate returned on Tuesday. The chamber will vote on Sen. John Corny‘s (R-Texas) to review U.S. corporate investment in certain Chinese technology industries, and an amendment by Sens. rounds of mike (RS.D.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to ban China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from buying US farmland.

Any senator who feels excluded could still interrupt the process by opposing the votes on the amendments of all the other senators. Those disagreements have torpedoed Senate debate on the defense bill for the past few years, but leaders have so far avoided that scenario.

Joe Gould contributed to this report.

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