Representative Jen Kiggans, a minivan-driving mom and Navy veteran, narrowly won election last year in her suburban Virginia swing district after a fiercely competitive race that focused on her opposition to abortion rights.
The issue remains a top priority for voters in her district, and appearing too extreme on it could make her vulnerable again when she faces re-election in 2024. But Ms. Kiggans was one of dozens of Republicans from competitive districts who voted this week to support adding a bevy of deeply partisan restrictions to the annual defense policy bill, including one that would reverse a Pentagon policy aimed at preserving access to abortion services for military personnel, no matter where they are stationed.
Democrats said the G.O.P. provision was a steppingstone to instituting more abortion bans across the nation, while Republicans argued it merely preserved a longstanding bar against allowing federal funds to be used to pay for abortions.
The vote put lawmakers like Ms. Kiggans, a top target of Democrats whose seat is up for grabs in next year’s midterm congressional elections, in a politically perilous position. And it raised the question of whether, in scoring the short-term victory of keeping his party united behind the annual defense bill — which passed on a near-party-line vote on Friday — Speaker Kevin McCarthy may have embraced a strategy that could ultimately cost his party the House majority.
Ms. Kiggans and other similarly situated Republicans said they had no problem backing the abortion restriction or the bill itself, which emerged from the House loaded with other conservative policy dictates, including one barring the military health care program from providing transgender health services and another limiting diversity training for military personnel.
“Taxpayers should not be paying for elective surgery,” Ms. Kiggans, who ran as a moderate focused on kitchen-table economic issues, said in an interview on Friday, explaining her vote. “This wasn’t a bill about abortion; it was about taxpayers paying for travel for military members for elective procedures.”
Still, Democrats’ House campaign arm wasted no time in attacking Ms. Kiggans and other vulnerable Republicans who had backed the bill, and even some G.O.P. lawmakers conceded that embracing it was a bad look for a party trying to broaden its appeal.
“The reason we’re in the majority today is because of swing districts and the reason we’re going to lose the majority is because of swing districts,” said Representative Nancy Mace, Republican of South Carolina. “That’s just lost up here. We’re 10 days out from the August recess, and what have we done for women, post-Roe? Zero.”
Ms. Mace, who represents a politically split district, railed against the abortion amendment but ultimately voted for it because she said it was technically consistent with Defense Department policy. But she said she regretted being forced to take the vote at all.
“I’m not happy about it,” she said. “I wish we didn’t have to do this right now.”
The Republican proposal would overturn a Defense Department policy put in place after the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion last year, setting off a rush by some states to enact curbs and bans on the procedure. The policy reimburses travel costs for personnel who must travel out of state to obtain an abortion or related services. The policy does not provide any money for abortions.
Democrats pointed to the vote as a prime example of Republicans taking votes that could ultimately cost them their House majority. Strategists in both parties have suggested that the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, and Democrats’ subsequent efforts to spotlight Republican opposition to abortion rights, weakened the G.O.P. during last year’s election, costing them support from independent and suburban voters.
“For the swing districts they represent, they should be doing the opposite — but they’re not,” said Courtney Rice, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Their decision to put party politics over pocketbook issues is going to cost them the House in 2024.”
Many vulnerable House Republicans said they consoled themselves with the knowledge that the amendments that focused on stoking battles on social issues were likely to be stripped out of the bill by the Democrat-controlled Senate and would not be in a final version of the defense policy bill.
“It wouldn’t be the way I would run the place, but at the end of the day as long as we pass N.D.A.A. like we’ve done and keep the really nasty poison pills out, I think it solves the problem,” said Representative Tony Gonzales, Republican of Texas, referring to the defense bill by the initials of its full name. Mr. Gonzales, who voted for the abortion amendment and others barring transgender health services and limiting diversity training for military personnel, voted against amendments that sought to cut funding for Ukraine.
Sarah Chamberlain, the president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, an outside organization allied with the congressional Republican Main Street Caucus, described the vote as a “calculated risk” for many members who gambled that it would not hurt them politically.
“They made the decision that it was more important to them to get this bill out of the House than to fall on their sword on this one,” she said. “They would have preferred these amendments didn’t exist, but I think they can defend their vote because they’re supporting the men and women of the military.”
Still, it’s not the first time vulnerable Republicans have caved to the hard right wing of their party, even when it means taking votes that could prove to be political liabilities down the line. Mr. McCarthy, who has worked overtime to appease the right flank whose support he needs to remain in power — most of whom represent safe G.O.P. districts — has done comparatively little to protect more mainstream Republicans whose seats are at risk from having to take tough votes.
In April, they voted for Mr. McCarthy’s bill to lift the debt ceiling for one year in exchange for spending cuts and policy changes, even though it gutted programs that helped veterans and older people.
Last month, they voted in support of a resolution that would repeal a Biden administration rule that tightened federal regulations on stabilizing braces for firearms that have been used in several mass shootings. House leaders brought the bill to the floor in order to help end a weeklong blockade by far-right Republicans.
Still, the level of G.O.P. support for the abortion amendment — only two Republicans, Representatives John Duarte of California and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voted against it — came as a shock to Democrats.
“There are those across the aisle who realize that this is bad,” said Representative Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, a former Navy helicopter pilot who is one of two Democratic women in the House who have served in the military. Ms. Sherrill said she had heard from some Republican colleagues who told her privately, “‘This is really bad idea, this is a mistake.’ Well then, why did everyone but two people vote for this really bad amendment?”
Representative Chrissie Houlahan, Democrat of Pennsylvania and a former Air Force officer, said she was “surprised by the paucity of people who voted against the amendment. I was expecting 15 Republicans to do the right thing.”
Some more mainstream Republicans sought to justify their votes by arguing that they were not voting against abortion or transgender health care — just against government funding for it.
“If you look at the polling, most Americans don’t think the federal government should be paying for abortions,” Representative Stephanie Bice, Republican of Oklahoma and vice chair of the Main Street Caucus, said.
Representative Don Bacon, Republican of Nebraska, said he backed the provision barring military coverage for gender transition surgeries and hormone therapy because he believed, “If you want to do it, do it on your own dime.”
“I don’t think it should be the taxpayers’ responsibility,” Mr. Bacon added.
Annie Karni is a congressional correspondent. She was previously a White House correspondent. Before joining The Times, she covered the White House and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign for Politico, and spent a decade covering local politics for the New York Post and the New York Daily News. More about Annie Karni
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