WASHINGTON — Though 22 House Republicans voted against a bipartisan resolution supporting NATO this week, several said afterward that they actually do support the alliance, but not what they saw as a Democratic effort to tie the hands of President Donald Trump.
“The purpose of this resolution was not to strengthen our alliance, but to rebuke the President, and although I support NATO, I’m not going to play these kinds of games — especially with an issue that has far-reaching, international implications,” Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said in a statement.
The 357-22 vote to bar the use of federal funds to withdraw from NATO was decisive and bipartisan, but could also be read as an important bellwether for how far Trump, who has sent mixed signals about his commitment to the pact, can sway members away from GOP orthodoxy.
Beyond asserting Congress’ power of the purse, the measure — sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., backed by Democratic leadership and co-sponsored by eight Republicans — affirms support for NATO and its Article 5 mutual defense clause, for Montenegro’s accession, and for the goal that each member nation spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense by 2024.
The No. 2 Republican in the House, Rep. Steve Scalise, and other House GOP leaders were among the yeas. Scalise, of Louisiana, said Wednesday that he believes in the mission of the 70-year-old, 29-member alliance and also supports Trump’s campaign to pressure allies into spending more on defense.
“The European countries are stepping up and that’s a good thing, so [the resolution] covers that as well, and I thought that was an important addition to that relationship that helps these countries have more stake in the game,” Scalise said.
Of the 22 Republicans nays, a handful similarly split the difference Wednesday in individual statements provided to Defense News. They both praised the alliance as a bulwark against Russia and applauded Trump for pressing allies on funds, but they did not spell out whether they would side with Trump if he sought to withdraw from NATO.
Of the 22 Republican nays, 14 of them voted “yea” on a similar measure June 27, 2017, that reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Article 5 and called on allies to meet the 2 percent goal; two voted “nay” on both measures, and six are freshmen lawmakers who were not in Congress in 2017.
(The 423-4 vote in 2017 came after Trump pointedly did not affirm U.S. support for Article 5 in a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels before backing it in a speech days later.)
Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., voted “nay” on both pro-NATO measures. By way of explanation for Tuesday’s vote, the libertarian-leaning Massie tweeted: “Actually I’d call it the ‘Pledge Allegiance to NATO Act,’ and that’s correct, 22 of us did not.”
Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, called Tuesday’s resolution “yet another political stunt by the Democrats designed to drag down the President”; Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., called it an “unusual move to remove any president’s ability to negotiate treaties”; and Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said the measure’s commitment to NATO was overbroad.
“While I support NATO and our continued presence in it, this bill is unnecessary and appears deliberately aimed at undercutting the president’s efforts to get NATO countries to pay their fair share for its support,” McClintock said. “NATO was formed to provide security against the now-defunct Soviet Union; not to relieve individual European nations from their responsibility to maintain their own defenses at America’s expense.”
It’s not the first time there’s been ebb and flow among Republicans on the matter. In 2012, the GOP-led House passed an amendment, 226-196, from Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., to authorize the president to remove all U.S. brigades permanently stationed in Europe and replace them with a rotational force — but a similar amendment a year later failed, 110-313.
A significant chunk of the 14 who flip-flopped are aligned with the conservative House Freedom Caucus, led by influential GOP Rep. Mark Meadows. In a hallway interview Wednesday, the congressman from North Carolina said NATO is “critical” and “not obsolete,” but added that he and others on Tuesday were turned off by Democratic criticism of Trump leading up to the vote.
“It was more than a slap,” Meadows said. “Some of the things that were said were personal attacks that have no business being discussed when we’re talking about something as important as NATO membership.”
Nevertheless, the House Freedom Caucus did not take an official position on the resolution or whip votes. “We weren’t trying to make a point, and if we were, we’d have been more aggressive about our whip and our public comments, certainly,” Meadows said.
Wednesday’s floor remarks about the resolution that focused on Trump came from the head of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. He highlighted Trump’s false claims that NATO allies owe the U.S. money and called back to Trump’s widely criticized performances after a private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last year and at the last two NATO summits.
“One can't talk about the U.S. commitment to Article 5 in 2019 without mentioning President Trump's failure to embrace it in full view of our NATO’s allies to his first trip to Brussels in 2017,” Connolly said.
“The president’s provocative comments” — Trump said Germany was Russia’s captive and harped on the 2 percent goal at the last NATO summit — “undermine the summit’s goal of protecting unity in the face of renewed Russian aggression, especially given they occurred just days before what turned out to be a very difficult, if not disastrous, Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin,” Connolly said.
One Republican co-sponsor of Panetta’s resolution, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, of Illinois, found the 22 GOP nays disappointing in light of Russia’s "bad behavior.” Ultimately, the strong vote made the point that the House backs NATO, and if it was a message to Trump, then so be it.
“It may be a rebuke of the president or at least a rebuke of any consideration of the idea of withdrawing from NATO — but that’s our frigging job,” Kinzinger said. “It’s to have an opinion and make it known, not to be lap dogs to anybody, especially on foreign policy.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.