WASHINGTON ― Republican leaders on Wednesday were unable to muster the votes needed to pass the House’s annual Pentagon spending legislation amid a revolt from the right-wing Freedom Caucus, despite numerous conservative policy riders on the bill.
House Republicans had scheduled procedural votes on the legislation for Wednesday, but scrapped them amid Freedom Caucus opposition.
The possible delay in passing the House’s $826 billion Pentagon funding legislation highlights the looming prospect of a government shutdown, with the Freedom Caucus refusing to advance any appropriations bills – or a short-term funding extension – unless they secure non-defense spending cuts at levels even lower than what Congress agreed to in May’s debt ceiling deal.
“The Republican party always wants to defend the nation and always wants to support our militaries,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., told reporters on Tuesday. “But what we’re not going to do is say that we’re going to pass things without knowing what the plan is and knowing that it leads to increases spending that is crippling our citizens.”
The White House on Monday issued a veto threat against the fiscal 2024 Pentagon spending bill, chiefly because of socially conservative provisions including language that would bar the Pentagon from implementing its abortion leave policy as well as diversity and inclusion initiatives.
The partisan dispute mirrors a summer debate over the fiscal 2024 defense policy bill, which the House passed 219-210 in July after most Democrats abandoned the typically bipartisan legislation over several Freedom Caucus amendments.
Republican leaders put those Freedom Caucus amendments on the floor to secure their support in passing the defense policy bill. They tried to use the same playbook for the Pentagon spending bill this week, offering to put numerous amendments from right-wing lawmakers to the defense spending bill on the floor for votes.
Those amendments included one from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., that would reduce Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s salary to $1 per year. Another from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., would have banned military aid to Ukraine. The House voted down 70-358 a similar Gaetz amendment to the defense bill in July.
The strategy of putting Freedom Caucus amendments on the floor worked in July but has failed to appease the right-flank of the Republican Caucus so far this week. Republican leaders spent Wednesday trying to whip the Freedom Caucus to back the Pentagon spending bill, so far to no avail.
“We’ve been underestimated from the very beginning of this Congress,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik of New York told Defense News on Wednesday. “Our whip is doing a great job communicating with all of our members, and we’re confident that we’re going to continue to work through that and move forward the appropriations process.”
But the path forward remains unclear.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has pushed his caucus to pass a short-term funding bill through mid-November to give the House more time to pass its own appropriations bills as leverage against the bipartisan spending bills that the Democratic-held Senate plans to pass in the coming weeks.
However, Perry and more than a dozen Freedom Caucus members also vowed at Tuesday’s press conference to oppose a stopgap government funding bill that Congress needs to pass by September 30 to avoid a shutdown – unless they get the steep spending cuts they seek.
“It would be unbelievably disruptive to the ability of our servicemen and women to do their jobs and protect our country,” said Smith.
The Freedom Caucus has also rallied against the White House’s request for an additional $24 billion in Ukraine aid, including $13 billion for the Pentagon to continue providing military assistance for Kyiv.
McCarthy has floated splitting Ukraine aid from the stopgap funding bill and offering it as a separate measure in exchange for more border security funding. This puts him at odds with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has pushed aggressively for continued U.S. support for Ukraine in a series of floor speeches over the past week.
As the Freedom Caucus demands spending cuts, Senate Republicans have taken the opposite approach. They joined Democrats in using a provision in the May debt ceiling bill to increase funding levels beyond the negotiated caps.
The Senate Appropriations Committee advanced 27-1 its $832 billion Pentagon spending bill in July, including $8 billion in emergency funds beyond the debt ceiling caps. Those emergency funds include $1.1 billion in military aid for Taiwan under presidential drawdown authority, the same mechanism used to transfer weapons to Ukraine.
“We were able to add some emergency funding to the defense appropriations subcommittee bills that helps,” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the chamber’s top Republican appropriator, told Defense News. “I still think that defense is underfunded.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.