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New US shutdown risk looms as culture wars hit defence budget

The Pentagon’s annual funding bill is set to become the focus of a political showdown after Republicans inserted “anti-woke” social provisions into the legislation. The bill — known as the National Defense Authorization Act — is normally shielded from the most bitter partisan bickering and often passes with support from both political parties. But on Friday, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed their version of the legislation, worth $886bn, by adding measures designed to curb abortion rights, diversity training and medical care for transgender patients in the military. Democrats are likely to fight back by seeking to exclude the provisions. The latest tensions suggest that Capitol Hill is about to embark upon a new period of brinkmanship, just weeks after the US came within days of a debt default because of divisions over budgetary policy and the need to raise the country’s borrowing limit. Steve Scalise, the House majority leader, told reporters the bill was “an important victory for every American in this country that wants to see our military focused on our enemies abroad — not on wokeness and all of the indoctrination attempts you’re seeing within the Pentagon”. At the same press conference, Kevin McCarthy, House speaker, declared: “We don’t want Disneyland to train our military.” Unless the stand-off is resolved quickly, it risks becoming a hindrance for Washington as it presses ahead with efforts to support Ukraine against Russia’s full-scale invasion and attempts to bolster its presence in the Indo-Pacific region. The Pentagon is already suffering through a domestic political firestorm as Tommy Tuberville, a Republican senator from Alabama, is holding up the Senate confirmation of top military officers. Tuberville is protesting against the defence department’s new policies that facilitate access to abortion after the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to the procedure. Democrats have responded angrily to Republicans’ attempts to tie military spending to social policy demands. “They chose culture war over national security,” Elissa Slotkin, the Michigan Democratic congresswoman and a former Pentagon official, said on the House floor. Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic leader in the lower chamber, issued a statement with other party leaders accusing Republicans of turning “what should be a meaningful investment in our men and women in uniform into an extreme and reckless legislative joyride”. The House bill clashed with a bipartisan defence spending bill that will be considered in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, next week.

Talks to resolve the differences could take several more weeks, potentially getting close to the September 30 deadline when funding for all federal agencies, including the Pentagon, is set to expire. Funding bills for other US federal agencies are also in peril and fears of a widespread government shutdown in October are rising. Since striking an agreement with President Joe Biden to avert a debt default in early June, McCarthy has faced a backlash from the right flank of his party, leading him to take a harder line in this summer’s spending fights. But lobbyists for defence companies still praised the defence spending legislation passed in the House as a step forward towards eventual passage. “The last year and a half — with a land war in Europe and escalating threats in the Indo-Pacific — has made it even more clear that we must bolster our nation’s national security innovation base to fulfil defence needs, leverage our technological prowess, and accelerate the pace of acquisition,” said Eric Fanning, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents the top US defence companies.

Source: Financial Times