June 12, 2024

Chairman Aguilar: House Democrats want a bipartisan defense bill

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Today, House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar held a press conference with House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith and DPCC Co-Chair Veronica Escobar to urge Republicans to pass a bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act, which passed committee on an overwhelming 57-1 vote, and reject the partisan policy riders being offered by Extreme MAGA Republicans.

CHAIRMAN AGUILAR: Good morning, good morning. I'm so pleased to be joined by Ranking Member Adam Smith with the House Armed Services Committee, as a former HASC Member, always honored to be with him, and also DPCC Co-Chair Veronica Escobar, also an Armed Services Member. 

I'd like to briefly acknowledge the 12-year anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA. We recognize the men and women brought to this country by their parents and have only known the United States as their home. Today, they’re doctors, teachers, union workers and small business owners, and House Democrats will never stop working for them and fighting for them with legal status so they have the peace of mind that they deserve. And we know that President Biden and Vice President Harris share that view as well.

This morning, we had a productive Caucus Meeting. We heard from Ranking Member Smith about the important bipartisan provisions in this year's National Defense Authorization Act that will raise the quality of life for our service members and strengthen our national security. House Democrats want to keep the defense bill bipartisan. We will not support extreme partisan policy riders that have become a hallmark of every House Republican legislative effort. We've beaten back those continued attempts and will continue to do so from abortion to contraception care, and we will do it again. Let's put our service members and their families over politics and reject the extremism that the other side of the aisle continues to push. Let's pass a clean NDAA to protect our national security and our fundamental freedoms. With that, I'll turn it over to Ranking Member Adam Smith.

RANKING MEMBER SMITH: Thank you very much. Appreciate your leadership. 

Just a couple of quick points about the defense bill. There's two really positive things about it. One, it represents a bipartisan effort to meet the obligations and responsibilities of the legislative body. Every year, we work in a bipartisan way in committee. We go through regular order, pass the bill, and eventually wind up in a conference committee. And that's been a very good and very important process. On oversight, on a number of different provisions that are crucial to meeting our national security needs. This Congress does its job and works through those bills in a bipartisan way to produce good product. We did that again this year. We got a 57 to one vote out of the Armed Services Committee. I worked very closely with Chairman Rogers, who was an excellent partner in this process, to produce what I think is an incredibly important product to meet our national security needs, to make sure that we're taking care of our service members, to make sure that we continue to build on the partnerships and alliances that are so crucial for national security and to exercise the oversight to get the most out of taxpayers dollars. More specifically, we’re focused on the F-35 program, cutting back on the buy and instead investing in what is necessary to get us the product that we are paying for, and throughout the bill there are provisions like that. 

Second, this year's bill is really crucial because of its focus on the quality of life for our service members. Don Bacon and Chrissy Houlahan led a panel to analyze what is most important to make sure that service members' needs are being met. And in this bill we have a 19.5 percent pay increase for junior enlisted. This was identified as one of the biggest needs. Because of increases in the cost of housing, it's getting harder and harder for people on the lower end of the pay scale within the military to make it. We addressed that. We also addressed child care and health care and support for spouses and families in the most comprehensive way we've ever done. It's really important that we pass that. Those are the two very positive things. 

The negative is what came out of the Rules Committee, which is all of these amendments to, once again, turn this bill into more of a monument to bigotry than to the bipartisan cooperation we need to support the men and women who serve in our military. This amendment process, and the amendments haven't passed yet but we are deeply worried that they will. Number one, goes after women by taking away the travel policy. Given the restrictive access to reproductive care that so many states have adopted, making sure that women have access to the health care they need is a crucial factor in their decision to join the military and stay in the military. It also, again, targets the trans community by banning health care for both service members and their families, and it aggressively goes after any effort to make sure that our military is truly inclusive. 

If those amendments pass, this bill will not be one that we can support, because it will undermine the ability of people to serve in the military. If we're going to have an effective military, we have to recruit from every population. Historically, discrimination against gay and trans people, discrimination against women, discrimination against people of color has made it more difficult for those members to serve. The military is trying to correct that, and make sure that the military is welcoming. And let me be clear, they're doing a better job of that. It is getting better for all of those people that I just mentioned. Republicans want to turn back the clock. 

And final point, while it is getting better, it’s not where it needs to be. When you look at promotion within the military, white men are promoted at a higher pace and a higher percentage than any other category. Every other category lags behind. We need to continue to work to prove that. This bill, as it's currently constructed, will do that and will put us in a position to have a strong defense. The amendments offered will undercut and undermine that and contribute to an atmosphere of bigotry and discrimination that we do not need. 

So, I hope we'll defeat those amendments. If we do, we'll have a good bill. If we don't, it will be a bill that we will have to oppose. And with that, I'm very pleased to yield to Veronica Escobar who has been a long serving Member of the Armed Services Committee, a vital Member and also really important on the Quality of Life Panel issues that I mentioned earlier. Thank you very much. 

DPCC CO-CHAIR ESCOBAR: Thank you so much. Thanks, Pete. I want to thank our Ranking Member Adam Smith. 

I want to highlight just a couple of things and drill down a little bit more on what the Ranking Member said. As he mentioned, I had the opportunity and the privilege to serve on the Quality of Life Panel. We worked together in a bipartisan manner for nine months in order to produce, not just the report that the panel put forward that offered vital investments and improvements for our active duty service members for their families, but also it demonstrated that when you focus on the things that matter in a bipartisan way, then we get really good stuff done. And that Quality of Life Report was the foundation for this year's NDAA bill. And we have the full support from Chairman Rogers, full support from Ranking Member Smith to make our quality of life focus the foundation of this year's NDAA. And it was one of the quickest NDAA debates that we had, we got out of there before midnight, which was remarkable. But that was a testament to what happens when we focus on the things that really matter. We were very excited to have that overwhelming support for the NDAA, but what has been profoundly disappointing is to see the attacks on women, the LGBTQ community and the attacks on diversity in the military. 

I want to speak specifically to the attacks against women. Right after the Dobbs leak surfaced, I have the privilege of representing Fort Bliss, Texas in El Paso, right after the leak was made public, my office was flooded with calls from female active duty service members who were terrified about what this meant for them because Texas is one of the states where there is a total abortion ban. And this is how women in the military truly feel about what Republicans are doing today: terrified. Terrified that the rights, their hard-earned rights, will continue to be stripped away. The debate that is going to happen especially around women's reproductive freedom on the floor on this bill, that amendment is important to defeat. The debate is going to be important for Americans to listen to. 

We have to watch what Republicans do, not what they tell us. They frequently say that they respect the rights of women but when we look at what they are doing, specifically through this bill to women in the military, wanting to strip women of their reproductive freedom, then that is proof of the vision that they have for all women in America, and we will do everything possible to defeat these awful amendments and to ensure that our bipartisan work product is what ends up going to the Senate. And if these amendments pass, it will be a repudiation, unfortunately, of the really great bipartisan work that we did in Committee to focus on the things that matter.

And with that, I'll turn it back to our Caucus Chair.

Video of the full press conference and Q&A can be viewed here.