As members of Congress met on Wednesday to engage in delicate negotiations over health care and sanctions against Russia, Trump dropped another political hot potato into their laps by abruptly tweeting his decision to bar transgender people from serving in the military.
Trump’s sudden pronouncement thrusts to the forefront a largely overlooked debate among House Republicans over the funding of gender confirmation surgeries and hormone therapy for military personnel. Since June, Missouri Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler has been pushing to reverse an Obama-era policy mandating that the Pentagon pay for these medically prescribed procedures. In early July, she introduced an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would forbid such funding, though a coalition of Democrats and 24 GOP lawmakers narrowly defeated her proposal in the House.
Hartzler’s justification was largely economic; she argued that surgeries are costly and leave troops unable to fulfill their duties for extended periods of recovery time. In reality, the cost of transgender troops’ medical care is negligible. Yet many GOP lawmakers bought into Hartzler’s logic. While stopping short of endorsing a total ban on transgender service members, they nevertheless agreed that taxpayer funds shouldn’t be used for gender-related operations. After the amendment failed, a group of House members approached the president with a plea to take action.
By imposing a full ban on transgender soldiers, however, Trump went far beyond the cessation of medical funding that many in the House GOP members backed. His tweets left many Republican legislators to oppose the policy or clarify their stance. (Democrats uniformly opposed both the funding ban and the full ban.) For example, Kansas Republican representatives Kevin Yoder and Lynn Jenkins, both of whom voted for Hartzler’s amendment, released statements in support of allowing any able person to serve. Ken Buck, a GOP congressman from Colorado who also voted “aye” on the amendment, wrote in reaction to Trump’s ban, “America needs a military comprised of patriots willing to sacrifice for this country. Any American who is physically and emotionally qualified should be allowed to serve.” Francis Rooney, Kevin Cramer, Mike Gallagher, and other House members who supported the amendment have all issued similar statements in support of allowing transgender troops to serve, or at least questioning the ban.
A number of GOP senators have also questioned or disapproved of the ban. A spokeswoman for Iowa Senator Joni Ernst was quick to make the defunding-vs.-ban distinction. She stated, “Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity,” but then added that taxpayers should not be footing the bill for operations. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch said, “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone. Transgender people are people, and deserve the best we can do for them.” Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey’s office released a statement reading, in part, “Senator Toomey believes that every person should be judged based on his or her merits. That is why, during his entire public career, he has supported measures to protect individuals from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
It’s rare for so many GOP lawmakers to speak out against the president. For some Republicans, Trump’s announcement may provide an opportunity to portray themselves as moderates on the debate. With Trump flanking them to the right with a total ban, their proposal to defund transgender surgeries may seem less discriminatory to voters. On the flipside, a member of congress who fails to back the ban may appear to be soft on social issues in the eyes of Trump’s evangelical supporters.
When the Obama administration first allowed transgender troops to serve openly in the military in June 2016, there was little backlash from Republicans. Scuttling surgery funding was a pet issue for Hartzler and a handful of others in the House; maneuvers to get the provision included in the annual defense policy bill largely played out behind the scenes with little media coverage. For many GOP lawmakers, Trump’s decree puts a startling and unwelcome spotlight on an obscure debate, adding another headache to an already contentious congressional session. Indeed, reports suggest that Trump neglected to consult or even inform many in Congress of his decision. Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain seemed irked by Trump’s cavalier move to abruptly announce the ban over Twitter. Graham told The Post and Courier, “we need to have a hearing, not a tweet,” while McCain said in a statement, “The President’s tweet this morning regarding transgender Americans in the military is yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter.”
While the administration may hope to use the ban as red meat for Trump’s blue collar base during the midterms, the president’s shoot-from-the-hip approach to policy doesn’t appear to be doing much to win over allies in Congress.