WASHINGTON — A slim Republican majority in the House coupled with narrow Democratic control in the Senate could gum up the works as Congress sets its defense policy agenda in 2023.
The narrow GOP majority means incoming House Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and the party’s leadership will have to tread a fine line between conservative centrists and the populist right-wing members aligned with former President Donald Trump when it comes to defense policy.
Asked by Defense News whether he’s worried about the smaller-than-expected Republican majority in the House next year, Rogers responded with a “hell yes.”
“Just look at who [the lawmakers] are,” Rogers said of his fellow House Republicans. “We’re looking at narrow margins with some very unreasonable members.”
The establishment wing of the party generally favors higher defense budgets alongside ongoing military aid for Ukraine, while hardcore Trump loyalists have said they are concerned about those policies increasing the federal deficit and conflated it with what they view as underinvestment in southern border security.
Arnold Punaro, a consultant and former staff director on the Senate Armed Services Committee, predicts the narrow Republican House majority could amplify these tensions but not completely derail defense funding next year.
“Republicans in the House are expected to continue the recent increases in defense funding — though they will have to contend with the deficit hawks and isolationist wings of both parties — [and] increase the focus on addressing the threat from China,” he wrote in a November whitepaper.
Defense top line
The GOP has accused President Joe Biden of proposing insufficient increases to the defense budget during his first two years in office.
Republicans teamed up with centrist Democrats earlier this year to provide billions of dollars in additional funding for the Defense Department, citing the impact of spiraling inflation on Pentagon purchasing power amid what the government perceives as heightened threats from Russia and China.
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, in line to become the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee next year, is pushing for an audacious goal right off the bat: a defense budget top line that would well exceed $1 trillion.
“We need to increase defense spending to 5% of [gross domestic product] and take seriously our responsibility to prevent a two-theater war,” Wicker told Defense News.
The $777.7 billion defense top line for fiscal 2022 amounted to approximately 3% of national GDP. The amount Wicker wants would require a fiscal 2023 defense budget of nearly $1.3 trillion.
Still, Congress is unlikely to allocate such a high level of defense spending given the Democratic majority in the Senate and the Republican deficit hawks in the House.
For his part, Punaro expects “possible tensions between the deficit and defense hawks in the Republican party moving forward.”
“In past years in a Republican-controlled House, the deficit hawks, coupled with the anti-defense Democrats, were able to defeat defense increases,” he wrote. He noted there have been “big increases for defense over the last two years” in a Democrat-held Congress, and he predicts “another increase in FY 23.”
Support for Ukraine
After the White House asked Congress in November for an additional $38 billion in Ukraine assistance, House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., joined Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, R-Ga., at a news conference alongside other House Freedom Caucus members to blast the request.
“I’m here as a member of the House Armed Services Committee to say that the days of endless cash and military materiel to Ukraine are numbered,” Gaetz said.
The majority of the GOP conference has joined Democrats in voting for Ukraine aid, but 57 House Republicans voted against a $40 billion package in May.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., favored to become speaker next year, vowed in October there will be no “blank check” for Ukraine in a Republican-run House. While he has not committed to entirely cutting off assistance to Kyiv, he also hasn’t promised to put additional Ukraine aid to a vote on the House floor next year if the Biden administration makes new requests.
A Wall Street Journal poll released in early November found a sharp decline in Republican voter support for Ukraine aid, with 48% saying the U.S. is doing too much to help Kyiv. The poll found 37% of Republicans support additional aid for Ukraine, and 57% of all voters support it.
Trump strongly opposes Ukraine aid as well. In November, he launched his 2024 presidential run, potentially elevating the issue on the national stage next year and further eroding Republican support.
“The Democrats are sending another $40 billion to Ukraine, yet America’s parents are struggling to even feed their children,” Trump said in a May statement through his Save America PAC after Congress passed its second supplemental funding bill for Kyiv.
Conversely, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has consistently called for additional aid to Ukraine beyond what the Biden administration has provided, including the Army Tactical Missile System, a long-range surface-to-surface missile launcher.
“Ukraine needs more tanks, fighting vehicles, longer-range rockets, artillery and air defense systems, more [High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems], more drones and preparatory training in Western aircraft,” McConnell said on the Senate floor in September.
Oversight and investigations
Despite differences within the Republican Party, members are likely to unite in their newly won House majority to hold the Biden administration’s feet to the fire with congressional oversight and investigations.
Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, the incoming chairman on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has started to lay the groundwork for an Afghanistan investigation, telling Secretary of State Antony Blinken in October to preserve all records related to the Biden administration’s chaotic 2021 withdrawal from the country.
Congressional hearings could begin as early as February, before the annual defense budget process begins.
A senior Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss future plans, in October told Defense News the party will “continue to ask questions regarding [the Defense Department’s] vaccine mandate and how it’s affected readiness.”
Republicans’ fixation on issues they label “woke,” such as diversity and gender equity, have also crept into military hearings over the last year, leading to fights between conservative lawmakers and Pentagon leaders.
Punaro predicts House Republicans will use their majority to “look into military personnel policies that they view [as] tied to progressive social agendas and [as] hurting recruitment.”
House Republicans, while campaigning for the midterm elections, also vowed to establish a select committee on China.
Republicans established their China task force early in 2020 after Democrats refused to participate, accusing Trump of scapegoating Beijing for his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the House’s current China Task Force remains an entirely partisan initiative for now, it has advanced hundreds of proposals — many of which enjoy robust bipartisan support. The task force has worked closely with Taiwan’s diplomatic office and pushed to provide the nation with more American weapons at a faster pace.
McCarthy has also vowed to visit Taiwan when he becomes speaker, emulating the August trip to the island by outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Her visit led to China conducting a massive military exercise in the nearby strait.
“You’ve also seen Republicans make nuclear modernization a priority as adversaries like Russia and North Korea threaten the use of nuclear weapons, and as China has rapidly increased their nuclear arsenal,” the senior Republican aide said.
The House’s China Task Force also proposed subsidies and tax incentives to persuade manufacturers to develop semiconductors in the U.S. instead of in China and other Asian countries. The move is part of a broader effort to shore up the U.S. defense-industrial base.
Congress ultimately passed into law $52 billion worth of these subsidies in July.
As Congress continues to move the defense-industrial base further from Chinese influence, Republicans and Democrats are likely to find more opportunities for bipartisan consensus in addressing supply chain chokepoints and accelerating munitions production.
“For the past year, Rogers has been vocal about the need for active production lines to produce munitions and weapons that the U.S. and our allies may need,” the Republican aide said.
Lawmakers have voiced concerns the Pentagon is moving too slowly in awarding contracts to replenish weapons stockpiles as the U.S. military pulls from its own inventory to support Ukraine. Furthermore, supply chain snags and workforce shortages have hindered defense contractors’ ability to quickly produce materiel.
Punaro predicts Congress is likely to remain interested in “critical rare earth minerals” as part of an effort to address “supply chain constraints” and “workforce recruiting and retention.”
Lawmakers have sought to increase funding for the U.S. strategic mineral reserve, known as the National Defense Stockpile, to provide Washington with more options in an emergency. China controls the global market on many of these minerals, such as antimony — an alloy used to produce bullets and more advanced ammunition.
These issues — coupled with bipartisan distrust of China — provide ample incentive for the Armed Services committees to continue advancing the annual defense policy bill in 2023, even if the narrow margins of control and partisan acrimony create some drama along the way.
“Every time there’s a transition ... from one party to the next, there’s at least six months of feeling out what’s possible and what’s not,” outgoing House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith of Washington, who will serve as the panel’s top Democrat next year, told Defense News.
“Incoming Chairman Rogers and I are very much on the same page on 98% of the work.”
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.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.