Two-dozen House Republicans broke with their pro-defense brethren Thursday and helped Democrats kill an amendment that would have barred the military from funding transgender sex reassignment surgeries and hormone therapies.
The amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which sets out policies on America's $696 billion military budget, failed 214-209, with all Democrats and 24 Republicans opposing.
It means the military health care system will be called on to provide such surgeries as routine treatments for the first time, unless the Trump administration changes Obama-era policies that allow transgender troops to remain on duty.
The amendment was brought by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, Missouri Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, who said the military will be obligated to spend $3.7 billion the next 10 years on sex change operations.
She said the money could better be spent on weapons and readiness accounts at a time when troops are fighting Islamist terrorism and facing possible showdowns with North Korea and Russia.
"This amendment does not prevent anyone from joining the military or receiving standard medical care," Mrs. Hartzler said. "It simply makes sure our defense resources are allocated in a way that is smart and good for our national defense. This current policy of providing and paying for transgender surgeries hurts readiness."
The vote came as Defense Secretary James Mattis has ordered the military branches to study the impact of President Barack Obama's decision last year to allow open transgender troops to remain on duty rather than being automatically discharged.
Left to Mr. Mattis is a decision on whether to induct transgender people into the military. Facing a July 1 deadline, Mr. Mattis delayed a decision until at least January.
Democrats, for whom the LGBT community is a major constituent, opposed the amendment on grounds that all Americans should have a chance to serve and receive medical treatment.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called the amendment "appalling" and "mean spirited."
That brought a response from Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a former Marine Corps officer. He called the Democrats' objections "the silliest opposition to an amendment I've ever heard."
He urged military candidates to "figure out if you're a man or a woman before you join ... Let's make America great again."
But Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the Armed Services Committee's top Democrat, said: "This amendment takes us in the wrong direction ... The people who have been fighting for and protecting our country will be able to do it openly."
In another Democratic victory, the House defeated an amendment to kill the requirement that the Pentagon provide Congress with a report on how climate change is affecting the armed forces.
Similar to how the transgender amendment's backers argued, sponsoring Rep. Scott Perry, Pennsylvania Republican, called the rule an unnecessary demand not related to military needs.
"Drip by drip we have watched our military's focus eroded," he said.
But Rep. Elise Stefanik, New York Republican and chairwoman of the Armed Service committee's emerging threats subcommittee, said Congress needs the information to determine the military's long-term plans.