WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators on Friday introduced new legislation to block military leaders from dismissing any transgender troops and to speed up a Pentagon review into accessions of new transgender recruits.
The effort — which includes Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine with Democrats Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — comes after supporters unsuccessfully tried to attach the proposal to the annual defense authorization bill this week.
“Despite being denied a vote on my bipartisan amendment to defend our transgender service members, we are not giving up in this fight,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “Thousands of brave transgender Americans love our country enough to risk their lives for it, fight for it, and even die for it, and Congress should honor them and let them serve.
“Doing otherwise would only harm our readiness at a time when our military is deployed around the world in defense of our country.”
The move comes after President Donald Trump last month signed a directive banning any new transgender recruits from joining the military and instructing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis decide whether to retain or dismiss transgender individuals already serving.
Trump has labeled transgender troops a potential readiness threat, because of medical concerns and costs related to their gender transitions. Critics of the president point to studies from the Defense Department last year disputing the costs and potential effects on morale.
The RAND Corporation has previously estimated the cost of health care services for transgender troops at close to $8 million a year, a small fraction of the $600 billion-plus Pentagon budget.
McCain, who serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that with new legislation, Trump’s proposals are unnecessary and do not improve military readiness.
“When less than one percent of Americans are volunteering to join the military, we should welcome all those who are willing and able to serve our country,” he said.
Under Trump’s memo, Mattis has until March 2018 to decide the fate of current transgender troops and issue exceptions to a ban on funding for transgender-related medical procedures.
The legislation introduced Friday would speed up that review to the end of this year, and prohibit the Pentagon from dismissing any troops “solely on the basis of the member’s gender identity.” It would also express a sense of Congress that all Americans who meet fitness standards should be eligible to serve in the ranks.
The proposal is similar to an amendment Gillibrand had hoped to attach this week to the authorization bill, passed annually for the last five decades. But debate on the measure — and several other controversial proposals — were scuttled when Republican and Democratic leaders could not reach an agreement on the bill.
Instead, senators will vote on a version of the authorization measure mostly identical to the draft that passed out of McCain’s committee without opposition in July.
Getting a vote on the new stand-alone measure appears even more difficult than the amendment route, given Senate Republican leadership’s opposition to the idea. But backers say the new legislation is important to show support for the transgender troops already serving.
“With the introduction of this legislation, an important line in the sand has been drawn against Trump’s discriminatory and unconstitutional ban on military service by transgender individuals,” Ian Thompson, legislative representative at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.
“Transgender servicemembers … have repeatedly proven that they have the courage and capacity to serve in our nation’s armed forces. It is time for Congress and the courts to stand up for them.”
ACLU is one of several rights groups to bring lawsuits against the Trump administration over the military service changes.
Outside rights groups have estimated that up to 15,000 transgender individuals are already serving in the ranks, while Defense Department estimates have put the figure at around half that total. But only a few hundred have contacted military officials with requests for medical treatments since last fall, when military officials announced they would allow transgender individuals to serve openly.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.