Geopolitics Military Affairs

Controversial defense bill authorizing the largest military budget in US history

Martin Gvoth

On July 14, the Republican-led House of Representatives approved the defense bill authorizing the largest military budget in US history, totaling $886.3 billion. The final vote on the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was 219-210, with all but four Democrats voting against it. These four Democrats represented swing districts, while four Republicans, conservatives of different factions, also voted against it. The NDAA is an annual bill and typically receives bipartisan support as politicians aim to demonstrate their support for the US military. However, the bill’s future is uncertain as it advances to the Democrat-controlled Senate, potentially leading to clashes between the House and Senate regarding competing priorities within the bill.

Until the night before the vote, it was unclear whether the Republicans had enough votes to pass the legislation without the support of the Democratic representatives, especially considering the amendments proposed by the House Freedom Caucus. The House Freedom Caucus is regarded as the most conservative and farthest-right bloc within the House Republican Conference. Their agenda includes imposing severe restrictions on military aid and funding provided to Ukraine. Initially, the ultraconservative lawmakers insisted on significant reductions in support for Ukraine, along with ending the $300 million program to train and equip Ukrainian soldiers that has been in place for nearly a decade. They also sought to prohibit the Biden administration from sending cluster munitions to Kyiv. However, the amendments proposing these cuts were not approved.

Content of the bill

The bill authorizes $886 billion for national defense programs, an increase of $28 billion compared to last year. It also includes a 5.2% pay increase for service members, according to the House Armed Services Committee fact sheet. Additionally, the bill contains provisions to counter China’s influence, enhance military readiness, bolster missile defense capabilities, and foster technological innovation.

The passed bill also includes some of the controversial amendments put forward by the far-right House Freedom Caucus. These amendments aim to revoke the Pentagon’s program reimbursing service members for necessary travel to access abortion care, impose restrictions on access to gender-affirming care for transgender troops, and terminate several diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives within the Defense Department.

The provision regarding abortion, proposed by Republican Ronny Jackson, emerged as a significant point of contention for the majority of Democrats. On the other hand, the ultraconservative members of the House Freedom Caucus celebrated the bill as a significant victory, condemning what they perceived as the Biden administration’s attempts to enforce a liberal agenda upon the military.

Future legislative struggles

McCarthy’s decision to allow a vote on reducing aid for Ukraine, despite mainstream Republicans considering it unlikely to pass, can be seen as a result of pressure from the House Freedom Caucus. This, along with the passing of the amended NDAA, highlights the latest instance of the influence conservative lawmakers wield by exploiting the tenuous majority held by McCarthy’s house to advance their conservative agenda. Allowing contentious amendment votes signals a significant concession by Republican leadership to conservative hardliners while painting a clear picture of how future legislative battles, including the approaching debates on government funding, may unfold.

The power of the 40-member Freedom Caucus, composed of far-right Republican politicians who often diverge from the politics of their own party, stems from McCarthy’s struggles to secure and retain his speakership. It is likely that their influence will not diminish as 218 votes are needed to advance any legislation when the House is fully occupied, and Republicans hold a total of 222 votes. The fragile majority was evident as the House was at a standstill over bills that didn’t even contradict GOP orthodoxy or policy, such as protecting gas stoves from potential government bans. The conservative caucus withheld support for the bill to express their anger over McCarthy’s recent passing of the debt limit, clearly demonstrating their ability to block important bills on the Republican agenda if their demands are not met.

What will happen to the bill?

The Democrat-controlled Senate is likely to pass a different version of the bill, removing certain amendments, as noted by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, a Republican. If this is the case and the two chambers pass different bills, they will be sent to a Conference Committee, as most major legislation goes through this process. Members from each house form a conference committee and meet to find a version that is agreeable to both sides. If the Conference Committee reaches a compromise, it prepares a written conference report that must be approved by each chamber. Given the significance of the legislation and the current global geopolitical tensions, including China’s growing influence, most Democrats are likely to support the bill if abortion restrictions, seen as their “red lines,” are removed.

Photo credit: flickr.com/Tom Thai

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