House Republican infighting is threatening to tank the chamber’s annual defense funding bill — and it has almost nothing to do with the Pentagon.
The $826 billion defense appropriations bill is scheduled to come to the House floor Wednesday afternoon. It remains unclear whether the right-wing spending measure can garner enough Republican votes to survive an initial procedural vote as some conservatives indicate they’re still not on board.
The dispute has little to do with the Pentagon bill itself, which Republicans loaded with culture war provisions to appeal to conservatives. But with a potential shutdown looming, Speaker Kevin McCarthy is facing a litany of demands from his right flank on how to handle federal spending talks with the Senate to avert a funding lapse.
A misstep could spur detractors to push to strip McCarthy of his gavel.
“Nobody’s objecting to what’s in the bill,” said House Rules Committee Chair Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “Everybody’s trying to leverage the bill for something now.”
Republican leaders continued to whip the defense bill Tuesday night, and it’s expected to come up when McCarthy and his team meet with the entire House GOP conference Wednesday morning. The House Rules Committee teed up 184 amendments to the bill Tuesday evening, paving the way for debate on the legislation.
But there are already signals that Republicans don’t yet have the votes. Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and the Rules Committee, broke with Republicans and voted against the amendment package Tuesday night. Norman and Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) told reporters they plan to vote against the rule to begin debate on the defense bill, as House Freedom Caucus members continue to make spending demands of McCarthy.
“We’ll see,” House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said of whether Republicans can close ranks. “They’ve been off on the range, running free and wild for six weeks and now they’re back.”
McCarthy can afford only four GOP defections on any vote for the spending bill. Democrats oppose the legislation because Republicans loaded it with provisions taking aim at the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy, medical treatment for transgender troops and diversity programs. President Joe Biden has threatened to veto the bill, though the partisan legislation would never clear the Democratic Senate and make it to the president’s desk in its current form.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus, meanwhile, insisted that McCarthy take a harder line in a spending confrontation with Biden and the Senate. The right-wing faction railed against the possibility of a “clean” stopgap bill to keep the government open past the end of September, pushing for concessions on the border and slashing funding for the social programs they’ve targeted at the Pentagon, as well as steep spending cuts.
“We need to know what the topline levels are gonna be across the board and know what the plan is going to be to negotiate with the Senate and how we get these done,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas).
McCarthy is also looking to clear GOP-led spending bills to strengthen the House’s hand in the upcoming shutdown fight. Passing the conservative defense bill would be just the second annual government spending bill to clear the House this year.
Republican leaders made a bid to shore up hard-right support for the defense bill by setting up votes on a variety of conservative amendments, including proposals that target Biden administration officials, diversity programs and Ukraine funding.
If the bill heads to the floor, lawmakers will vote on Norman’s amendment to block funding for all Pentagon offices related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Roy, another Freedom Caucus member, will get a vote on his proposal to block Defense Department funding for the observance of Pride Month.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — a McCarthy critic who threatened Tuesday to call a vote to oust him if he caves to pressure to pass a “clean” short-term government funding bill — is getting a vote on his proposal to block security aid to Ukraine. And leaders granted a vote on Rep. Andy Biggs’ (R-Ariz.) amendment to slash $300 million in funding for Kyiv from the bill.
Several GOP proposals to reduce certain Pentagon officials’ salaries to $1 were approved for votes, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) amendment to slash Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s pay.
That may not be enough to appease conservatives, many of whom want a path forward to confront the Senate, reduce spending and beef up border security, among other demands.
McCarthy won no reprieve on spending from conservatives after he announced an impeachment inquiry into Biden on Tuesday either.
“I don’t know that this has anything to do with defense,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), an appropriator, said of the dispute over the bill. “There’s a menu of items out there where people on our right flank are upset for one reason or another. And I think there’s probably a handful, beginning with Gaetz, that just have McCarthy in their sights.”
Jordain Carney and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.
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