McCarthy threatens to hold up key defense bill until next year

Win McNamee

WASHINGTON — Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California is threatening to delay passage of the fiscal 2023 defense-authorization bill until January when Republicans take control of the House – and likely make him speaker.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has decided to cancel a floor vote on the upper chamber’s version of the legislation and instead proceed directly to a compromise bill with the House. This would mark the second year in a row that the Senate has not held a vote on its own version of the bill.

If lawmakers do not a pass a compromise version of the NDAA by January 1, it would mark the first time in 61 years that Congress has not passed its hallmark defense bill.

“I’ve watched what the Democrats have done on many of these things, especially the NDAA – the woke-ism that they want to bring in there,” McCarthy told reporters on Tuesday after House Republican leadership elections, where the majority of his caucus nominated him to serve as speaker in the next Congress. “I actually believe the NDAA should hold up until the 1st of this year – and let’s get it right.”

The Republican leader — who joined 149 House Republicans in voting to pass his chamber’s version of the bill 329-101 in July — did not specify what specific provisions in the legislation he considers to be “woke.”

A handful of progressives typically vote against the NDAA – objecting to the defense budget topline – and 39 Democrats voted against the $839 billion House bill in July. This means that Democrats likely need at least some Republican support to pass the compromise bill, and McCarthy could forestall that if he whips enough of his caucus to vote against final passage.

McCarthy’s remarks came in spite of a series of meetings this week between the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to prepare a compromise NDAA with the goal of passage in early December.

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., told CSPAN on Wednesday that he’s “pretty sure” the negotiations would produce a bicameral bill by the end of the week.

“If you kick it off four, five, six months, you are really damaging the United States military,” Smith said later on Wednesday at the Politico Defense Summit. “I hope Kevin McCarthy understands that.”

Before McCarthy publicly threatened to stall the NDAA, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama – the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee – told reporters that the informal negotiations with the Senate have gone “very well.”

“But who knows, it could come off track,” he said.

‘Other legislative priorities’

Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., also said that the informal discussions with the House “have made progress.”

Reed said that the Senate “didn’t have a lot of time” to pass its own $847 billion version of the NDAA this week, as initially planned, “because of other legislative priorities” during the lame duck session of Congress.

Instead, Schumer is looking to use what little Senate floor time remains to confirm more of President Joe Biden’s nominees and pass legislation relating to same-sex marriage protections, a debt ceiling increase and a government funding bill.

Schumer argued that Republicans could block fast-track procedural mechanisms that would allow the Senate to quickly amend and pass the NDAA. He pointed to last year when Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., held up the bill and forced leadership to pull it off the floor because it did not include his China sanctions amendment over the Uighur genocide.

“The floor is so tied up because you can get a single Republican to knock out all the amendments,” Schumer told Defense News. He added that “we can get more done” by skipping a separate vote on the Senate NDAA and proceeding directly to final passage of a compromise bill.

Still, the decision deprives individual senators such as Tim Kaine, D-Va., the opportunity to introduce their own amendments to the behemoth bill. Kaine had hoped for a vote on his bipartisan amendment to repeal the 2002 military authorization to invade Iraq – an amendment that the House has already added to its version of the NDAA.

“For the second year in a row, not to do an NDAA with amendments would be a big mistake,” said Kaine.

The decision also forgoes a Senate vote on a massive package of 75 bipartisan NDAA amendments. Those amendments include $10 billion in Taiwan military aid and foreign military sale reforms, $841 million for a third Coast Guard icebreaker in the Arctic, and wartime contracting authorities for the Pentagon to buy large amounts of high-priority munitions with multi-year contracts – many of which have been sent to Ukraine.

The Senate NDAA also includes $2 billion to accelerate munitions production and $1 billion to more than double the net worth of the national critical minerals reserve with the aim of lessening the defense industrial base’s reliance on adversaries such as China – far more than the House version has allocated for either purpose.

Despite McCarthy’s threat to hold the NDAA in the House, and the Senate skipping a vote on its own version, Senate Armed Services ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., struck an optimistic note that Congress would pass a final bill by January.

“We’re exactly where we’ve been every year at this point,” said Inhofe.

Leo Shane III contributed to this report.