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Week in politics: Republicans pass a defense bill with widespread consequences

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The culture wars came for the U.S. military budget this week. The Republican-led House passed a bill authorizing next year's Defense Department budget, but with provisions. One curtails diversity programs. Another would block current policies that pay for service members to travel for abortions. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: This legislation usually get support from both parties. But listen to a segment from a floor debate. This is Ohio representative Democrat Joyce Beatty on Thursday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOYCE BEATTY: I'm old enough to remember when Black officers, when women were not allowed to serve. You are setting us back on this floor on both sides of the aisle. We have people of color. We have people who have served, women who have served.

SIMON: She was specifically addressing Republican Eli Crane of Arizona, who had proposed an amendment to prohibit mandatory diversity training. Caution, he used as offensive language here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELI CRANE: My amendment has nothing to do with whether or not colored people or Black people or anybody can serve, OK? It has nothing to do with color of your skin...

BEATTY: Mr. Speaker.

CRANE: ...Any of that stuff. What we want to preserve and maintain is the fact that our military does not become a social experiment.

SIMON: Representative Beatty then got the attention of the presiding officer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEATTY: I'd like to be recognized to have the words colored people stricken from the record. I find it offensive and very inappropriate.

UNIDENTIFIED REP: Is the gentlelady asking for unanimous consent to take down the words?

BEATTY: I am asking for unanimous consent to take down the words of referring to me or any of my colleagues as colored people.

SIMON: And she got that unanimous consent. The words were stricken from the record. Representative Crane later said he had misspoken. Ron, help us read what's going on here.

ELVING: There's so many things going on here, Scott. Eli Crane dredged up a phrase from the past generations ago that has long since become derogatory and provocative. More important is the substance of what these amendments in the House bill are attacking. The programs they're upset about are the kind of diversity training millions are familiar with from public school and from many, if not most places of work, basic sensitivity programs to help people in the military work together across differences. And, of course, they're also upset about abortion policy in the Pentagon.

SIMON: These add-ons, if you please, don't seem to stand much chance in the Senate, where the Democrats have a slim majority. So why is this, in a sense, a story at all?

ELVING: The Senate is not expected to approve any language of this kind in its version of the bill. But we do have a parallel effort there that's been going on for months. First-term Senator Tommy Tuberville, a Republican from Alabama, has blocked hundreds of military promotions since February, going on close to 300. Now, he's upset that the Pentagon has been granting paid leave and paying travel expenses when military personnel have to go out of state for an abortion. Now, Tuberville has not been finding much support in the Senate, but he has the backing of some House members. And those were the people who got this issue inserted in the defense bill. So no accident. Tuberville provides inspiration for them. They provide back up for his one-man crusade in the Senate. But in the Senate, rules allow him to block all those nominations, including the new commandant of the Marines and possibly three more members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the months just ahead.

SIMON: House Republicans also proposed amendments that would ease up on U.S. support for Ukraine. This is while President Biden was at the NATO summit. The efforts failed, but can Ukraine count on U.S. support the way he has so far?

ELVING: He can count on the support of President Biden and his administration and most of Congress. But there are rising voices on both the left and the right questioning our commitment in Ukraine. President Zelenskyy is savvy enough about all these political angles that he knows what Biden can and can't say about full membership in NATO until the current war with Russia is resolved. So Zelenskyy left the NATO conference earlier this week showing anger that the alliance did not admit Ukraine or say exactly when it will. But he is getting the weapons that he so desperately needs and the ammunition. And Ukraine's future as part of NATO is clear.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.