For each of the past 62 years, the National Defense Authorization Act has been an annual tradition of bipartisan cooperation. That’s not to say there hasn’t been significant controversy in the past, most recently during George W. Bush’s war of choice in Iraq, but national defense policy has remained a thing Democrats and Republicans could eventually agree upon because it’s always been a top priority. Then Kevin McCarthy became speaker of the House.
The Freedom Caucus has won again. They came to the Rules Committee with dozens of poison pill amendments to the bill that will direct the Pentagon on how it can spend the $886.3 billion it’s being allocated. For a couple of days McCarthy and his leadership team maintained the pretense that they were going to hold the extremists off, that they weren’t going to allow the bill to be tanked by culture war, conspiracy theory, Trumpy nonsense. That lasted all of 48 hours.
By Wednesday night McCarthy capitulated, and the House Rules committee okayed 80 poison pills that the hard-liners were pushing. If they didn’t get floor votes on their amendments, they threatened, they wouldn’t let the authorization go to the floor at all.
The amendments are ridiculous, running the gamut from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s effort to strip $300 million from Ukraine aid to Rep. Lauren Boebert’s push to ban books in military base school libraries. The nihilists have proposed amendments to halt the renaming of military bases named after Confederate traitors, ban masks from military installations, allow recruits and service members to refuse COVID-19 vaccinations, block the Defense Department from carrying out any executive orders to combat climate change, and gut diversity and inclusion programs in the military.
Of course they are also trying to ban the military from allowing service members time off to travel for abortion and other reproductive health care, and of course they’re trying to ban health care for trans service members.
McCarthy had mouthed some things about working with Democrats to pass the bill essentially as it came out of committee. As recently as Wednesday morning he was telling his people, in the words of one Republican, “We need to keep amendments germane to defense. No more ‘Christmas Tree’ defense bills.” That went out the window by Wednesday night. Now McCarthy is in the position of having to get 218 Republican votes to pass the bill even if any of these poison pill amendments are adopted.
Democrats are trying to warn their Republican colleagues about what’s coming. Here’s Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, ranking member of the Rules Committee, on the floor Wednesday.
These amendments, he said, signal the “MAGA circus” running wild. Democrats will object, he said, to “the extorting of your leadership by a small group of extremists in this House who are trying to force their right-wing and hard-line views on congress and on the people of this country.” If they don’t win on individual amendment votes, McGovern warned his colleagues, they’ll try to force a “self-executing” rule for the final passage that includes the amendments en bloc anyway. “What we’re worried about is what this small group of individuals that seems to be engaged in extortion on every single major bill that comes to this floor, what they will end up winning in this process.”
Republican Whip Tom Emmer told The Hill that leadership expects every Republican to vote for this bill, regardless of what ends up in it. They will force it down the throats of the majority of non-Freedom Caucus members. “If [an amendment] passes with Republican votes, if it becomes part of the NDAA, we’re gonna pass it with 218. That is our goal,” Emmer said. The supposed “centrists” will likely fold. They gave up quickly enough on their efforts to get the circus to back down.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have agreed to start work on the National Defense Authorization Act on their side, with Schumer filing the bill Wednesday evening and teeing up the first votes to start next Tuesday. He asked for amendments to be filed by the end of Thursday and said, “Senator McConnell, the committees, and I will have our teams working over the weekend to see what we can include in the package of amendments." The lack of drama (so far) between Schumer and McConnell is a signal to the House that the Senate doesn’t want their nonsense. They have enough of their own, like dealing with Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who is single-handedly threatening national security with his ongoing blockade of Pentagon staff.
McCarthy seems to be working under the apprehension that the House will get to a final vote on the bill Friday. But McCarthy is usually wrong—after all, he’s the guy who thought he could talk the maniacs down on amendments. It’s much more likely that this is going to turn into a slugfest that could stretch into next week, eating up precious time Congress doesn’t have and threatening further government funding bills. There are just 10 or so working days left before the House takes a scheduled six-week August break. After that, they have just 12 working days scheduled in September to pass crucial government funding bills, where they are at an impasse with the radicals over the most basic issues.
This defense bill battle is simply a preview of the fight to come on those funding bills. The House radicals are inching closer to a government shutdown by the minute, and McCarthy is letting it happen.
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