‘The military is being held hostage’: Republicans hit GOP hard-liners over defense spending bill

Last updated on September 15, 2023

House Republican defense hawks launched a counteroffensive Friday on far-right members of their party in a bid to break the stalemate that stalled annual Pentagon funding legislation this week.

Led by California Reps. Mike Garcia and Ken Calvert, both House appropriators, and several other Republican military veterans, the lawmakers criticized both Democrats and Republicans holding out on the bill.

But the target audience was unmistakably conservative holdouts — whose opposition would tank the bill on a procedural vote, known as a rule. Garcia argued that torpedoing the bill, which contains a number of far-right measures, is effectively an endorsement of President Joe Biden’s policies.

“If you oppose a rule, which is effectively preventing this bill from moving forward, and if you oppose the passage of this bill, you are enabling the failed defense policies of this administration and accelerating the downward trajectory of our nation’s security,” Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot, told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday yanked the $826 billion spending bill amid a dispute with conservative lawmakers, chiefly the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, which is withholding its votes for the legislation in a bid to force a harder line in a broader spending confrontation with the Senate that may force a government shutdown. Many of those lawmakers have noted that they’re not against the defense bill itself.

Following McCarthy’s move, GOP leaders are now trying to reach an agreement with hard-liners on government-wide spending that would free up the defense bill and allow debate to occur next week. If a deal isn’t reached with the rebels, however, Garcia said McCarthy and his team should consider holding a vote on the defense bill and forcing conservatives to block it publicly.

“If we can’t get people on board, I think we owe it to our troops to bring the [bill] to a vote. I’m not in leadership. I’ll defer that decision to the leader, the whip, the speaker,” Garcia said. “But I think the American people deserve to know who is either on board or not on board with this DoD spending bill at some point.”

Defense hawks have lamented that their legislation is caught in a dispute that’s unrelated to military spending.

“What’s happening is the military is being held hostage to these procedural votes, so that can’t happen,” Calvert said. “Our enemies are looking at us every day. And our friends, too. Where are we when it comes to national security?”

Garcia and Calvert were joined at a press conference by GOP Reps. Rich McCormick of Georgia, a Marine veteran, Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin, a retired Navy SEAL, and Brandon Williams of New York, a former Navy submarine officer.

Republicans have little room to maneuver on the defense bill or any of the other annual federal spending legislation. The Pentagon bill includes conservative provisions on the administration’s abortion travel policy, transgender medical treatments and diversity programs. Biden has threatened to veto the legislation.

McCarthy and Republicans who want to pass the spending bills can afford only four GOP defections.

The lawmakers on Friday argued all Republicans want to see overall spending slashed and shouldn’t hold up the Pentagon bill over efforts to cut the non-defense side of the budget.

“I’m calling on the people in my party and the other party who are refusing to get on board with this bill … to really think, reflect for a long period of time about what they’re doing,” Van Orden said. “And if that’s not helping, I’d be more than happy to get on a plane with any one of them and fly to one of these conflict zones … and I’ll show you what you’re mucking about with.”

Even if they can pass the defense bill, the right-wing legislation stands no chance of clearing the Democratic Senate.

Conservatives are pressuring McCarthy to take a hard-line approach as part of any stopgap bill to fund the government past Sept. 30, despite the fact that doing so would be rejected by the Senate and heighten the odds of a shutdown. But McCarthy’s detractors could move to strip his gavel if he endorses a clean funding patch.