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GOP Sen. Mike Rounds says 'common sense' will yield bipartisan defense spending bill

U.S. Sen. Michael Rounds (R-SD) speaks to members of the press as he arrives at a Senate Republican policy luncheon.
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U.S. Sen. Michael Rounds (R-SD) speaks to members of the press as he arrives at a Senate Republican policy luncheon.

Updated July 18, 2023 at 2:10 PM ET

As the U.S. Senate turns to a debate over a massive defense authorization bill, South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds tells Morning Edition that "common sense" will help drive a bipartisan compromise.

The Republican-led U.S. House passed a version, which included several conservative amendments, including a ban on transgender health funding. Another amendment would prohibit the Defense Department from paying or reimbursing travel expenses related to abortion care for service members.

Congress's annual defense bill, The National Defense Authorization Act, has historically had bipartisan support.

Rounds acknowledges that with Democrats in the majority in the Senate, the House version is unlikely to end up being becoming law, "even though a lot of us would prefer to see a number of those items created."

"This is a bill that will pass eventually, but it should pass with bipartisan support, focusing on the military in our need to defend our country," Rounds told NPR's Steve Inskeep for Morning Edition. "A little bit of common sense will go a long way."

The Senate returns today after a two week break and will take up consideration of the defense package. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has indicated he wants the Senate to pass its version of the bill before Congress recesses in August. In a statement released Monday, Schumer said the Senate's version is "a stark contrast to the bill that came out of the House." Once the Senate approves its version of the bill, the two chambers would need to reconcile their bills into a version that could ultimately be signed into law by President Biden.

Sen. Rounds spoke to Morning Edition on Monday. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Steve Inskeep: Is this defense bill the right forum for people to argue over abortion and trans people?

Sen. Mike Rounds: When President Biden authorized the use of federal funds to allow people to transfer from one state to another to have an abortion, he brings that into play. And I'm quite certain he knew he was doing it when he did it. And so it becomes an item of discussion. So, yeah, anytime you're talking about Department of Defense policies, you're going to have the opportunity to discuss those types of very important issues that the nation follows.

Steve Inskeep: There have been bans on using federal funds for abortion for a long time... You're saying that Biden moved the goalposts in some way by saying the federal government would not pay for abortions, but would allow people to travel for an abortion if they need to because it's been banned in their state. You're saying that's a legitimate part of a defense bill?

Sen. Mike Rounds: Not so much that they can travel, but rather that it would be paid for by the federal government. And under the Hyde Amendment, which has been there for years, there is a prohibition against using federal funds for providing abortions. Now the president will say, I'm not providing them, I'm just providing them transportation costs and time off to do an abortion. But that's the reason why this discussion is going on in the first place.

In the meantime, you got a House authorization bill. The Senate is in the middle of creating our own bill, which tries to address some of the same issues, but probably on a more bipartisan basis. And in order for this to go into law, it will have to get done on a bipartisan basis focusing on the military and our need to defend our country. A little bit of common sense will go a long way as we discuss this issues for the next three or four months.

Steve Inskeep: Why do you think it is, Senator, that transgender issues have animated so many prominent voices in your party?

Sen. Mike Rounds: Let me just share with you the frustration and the reason why I talk about a little bit of common sense. This last week, C.Q. Brown, he is the nominee to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a guy that I want to support. I had to ask him a question about a young lady who was in the South Dakota National Guard, 18-years old, going to boot camp, finds herself between two men in open bay sleeping quarters. They are changing from male to female with a chemical process [that] has begun. No surgeries. How do you go back to her parents and say that this is appropriate?

Steve Inskeep: Do you think that those kinds of things can be worked out on a bipartisan basis, as you just suggested, the abortion matter could be?

Sen. Mike Rounds: I think we can. And look, bottom line is you have folks that are transgender, but they are also someone's child. So, number one, we want to talk about how we treat everybody. And we try to say that we want everybody to feel welcome in the military. But we've also got to take a look at making sure that everybody is comfortable with the conditions they find themselves in.

The audio version of this live interview was edited by Jan Johnson. The digital version of this story was edited by Padmananda Rama and Erika Aguilar.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Destinee Adams
Destinee Adams (she/her) is a temporary news assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. In May 2022, a month before joining Morning Edition, she earned a bachelor's degree in Multimedia Journalism at Oklahoma State University. During her undergraduate career, she interned at the Stillwater News Press (Okla.) and participated in NPR's Next Generation Radio. In 2020, she wrote about George Floyd's impact on Black Americans, and in the following years she covered transgender identity and unpopular Black history in the South. Adams was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.