House Republicans were engulfed in a nasty intraparty civil war Thursday, as angry social conservatives helped torpedo a routine spending bill in a fight over gay rights that is further dividing a party already riven by the candidacy of Donald Trump.
The battle poses a major challenge to Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisconsin, who had promised to bring order to his factionalized caucus heading into a critical election. The fight over gay rights not only threatens to tar the party's image among moderate voters but also has the potential to derail Ryan's efforts to pass a budget and keep the government funded past Oct. 1.
Ryan blamed Democrats for helping to defeat the spending bill, which is needed to finance clean-water programs and the nation's nuclear security apparatus. Many Democrats voted against the measure to protest conservative provisions that would have restricted gay and transgender rights.
But during a news conference at the Capitol, Ryan acknowledged that his party is divided and that it must come together on this and other issues if it hopes to win in November and govern in the days beyond.
"What I'm most concerned about is making sure that we actually have real party unity, not pretend party unity," Ryan said. "Real party unity - because we need to win this election in the fall."
For months, a culture war has raged at the state and local level as lawmakers have sparred over gay marriage, religious freedom and, most recently, the rights of transgender people to use the public bathroom of their choice.
Congress had mostly stayed out of that fight. But earlier this month, President Barack Obama issued an executive order directing public schools to accommodate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, a move that infuriated social conservatives in the House. Obama had also issued a separate executive order last summer barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers. In recent weeks, House conservatives have taken aim at those directives.
"We live in complicated times," said Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana, who chairs the Republican Policy Committee and is the author of a proposal to block Obama's guidance on public school bathrooms. "These are the debates of our nation, and I think it's important as a member that we respond to them."
The latest battle began last week when Rep. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma, offered a proposal to undo the executive order regarding federal contractors. That prompted Rep. Sean Maloney, an openly gay Democrat from New York, to launch a concerted campaign to win House approval for a competing measure that would strengthen the provisions of Obama's executive order by denying payment to federal contractors that discriminate.
Maloney's measure failed, but he tried a second time by adding it to a spending bill that finances military construction and veterans affairs. Under House rules, any member may offer any amendment to a spending bill, making the appropriations process a prime target for lawmakers looking to force votes on contentious policy issues.
"Democrats are being given a huge opportunity to put Republicans on the record on issues that alienate most independent, moderate voters," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman. "Every time that Republicans give us the opportunity, we're going to take it."
Chaos quickly ensued. Initially, the Maloney amendment appeared to pass. But at the last minute, Democrats said, seven Republicans switched their votes under pressure from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, and the amendment failed.
This week, Maloney tried again. Late Wednesday, the House voted 223 to 195 to accept Maloney's amendment on the energy and water bill.
"Equality wins! We have a long way to go, but achieved big victory. Will keep fighting until every #LGBT American is safe, can pursue dreams," Maloney tweeted.
Forty-three Republicans supported the Maloney proposal. But the House also adopted two amendments from House conservatives that would have rolled back Obama's more recent executive order regarding public restrooms. By Thursday morning, both parties were in an uproar.
During a private meeting of House Republicans led by Ryan, several lawmakers vented frustration about the Maloney amendment. The atmosphere grew tense when Rep. Rick Allen, R-Georgia, offered a prayer implying that the 43 Republicans who had supported LGBT rights "on the floor last night" went against the teachings of the Bible, according to several people in the room.
An Allen spokeswoman later acknowledged that the lawmaker offered a prayer, but she said he "made no mention of the [Maloney] amendment or the bill."
Still, at least one Republican lawmaker was so upset by Allen's remarks that he left the room. Another Republican, Rep. Charlie Dent (Pennsylvania), later criticized Allen.
"I thought the comments were wildly out of bounds and especially inappropriate given that this was supposed to be a prayer," said Dent, who was among the 43 Republicans who voted in support of LGBT rights. "I believe it's imperative for the Republican Party to make an affirmative statement on nondiscrimination for the LGBT community and deal with religious liberty."
In the meeting, Ryan told lawmakers that it will be difficult to keep his promise of sticking to regular order if these fights continue. That means he will have to make a decision about whether to continue to allow a free-flowing amendment process on the House floor, even if measures many Republicans disagree with get approved.
Ultimately, the spending bill failed 305 to 112. Among the no votes were 130 Republicans, including House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas.
Though the bill came out of the Appropriations Committee as "a strong measure," Sessions said, "I believe it is important not to [add] poison pills, things people understand are difficult issues."
Most of the Democratic caucus - 175 of 193 lawmakers - also voted no, saying they objected not only to provisions that would have restricted LGBT rights but also to language attached late Wednesday that would have banned U.S. tax dollars from being used to buy heavy water from Iran, a key component in nuclear reactors.
"It's unfortunate because it's a very good bill," Ryan said after the vote. "But what we learned today is that the Democrats were not looking to advance an issue but to sabotage the appropriations process. The mere fact that they passed their amendment and then voted against the bill containing their amendment proves this point."
Late Thursday, both sides said the battle over LGBT rights has only begun. "As long as they are going to inject discrimination into federal spending bills," Maloney said, "then of course we're going to try to stop them."
The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.