The defense bill agreement angers the far right, posing a threat to Johnson

The annual defense bill has become entangled in a tumultuous Republican feud in the House, as far-right lawmakers rebel against a bipartisan agreement to eliminate a series of deeply partisan dictates that would have limited access to abortion, transgender and diversity training.

The dispute over the $886 billion military policy bill, considered one of the few pieces of legislation Congress must pass each year, is unlikely to completely sink the legislation. But it has created a political crisis for President Mike Johnson, who has come under fierce criticism from ultra-conservative Republicans for his handling of government spending measures and now faces backlash over what is normally a generally popular.

“It would be a big problem for him if he knocked him down. Our base will be furious,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, said of the defense bill. She criticized Johnson for abandoning a litany of Conservative-backed policy changes, adding: “he will lose support.”

The bill has been a lightning rod for controversy since this summer, when House Republicans, under pressure from the far right to combat what they blamed for “insomnia” in the military, packed it with measures to reduce access to abortion, health care for transgender service members, and diversity, equity and inclusion training. The result was a sharply partisan bill that passed the House largely along party lines, a rarity for the defense policy bill, which traditionally enjoys lopsided bipartisan support.

But the Democratic-led Senate passed a much more subdued version, and in closed-door talks between the two chambers, House negotiators abandoned nearly all of their most extreme policy dictates, including one that would have banned drag queen shows on military bases. The compromise package, released last Wednesday, prompted cries of betrayal from right-wing Republicans, who were further infuriated to discover that it included an expansion of a warrantless surveillance program that many of them believe has been abused to spy the Americans.

Now Johnson is preparing for a right-wing rebellion against the bill that is almost inevitable. Action from the House is expected as early as next week, after the legislation is approved by the Senate, which took the first steps to consider it on Thursday.

Johnson, a Louisiana Republican elected president in October, is acutely aware that his predecessor was harassed by hardline Republicans angry that he had cut deals with Democrats and that he believed he had not sufficiently met his party’s demands. conservative.base. In theory, he could face the same fate under House rules that allow a single lawmaker to call a snap vote to remove the speaker, although Republicans appear unwilling to repeat the damaging episode.

Johnson, a staunch conservative, initially enjoyed some leeway from right-wing lawmakers who always distrusted and loathed former President Kevin McCarthy. Last month, many of them argued that the new speaker deserved time to get his bearings, and they mostly refrained from criticizing him for working with Democrats to pass a stopgap spending measure to avoid a government shutdown without spending cuts or political changes. IF he knocks.

But their response to the defense bill compromise suggests they are losing patience with Johnson.

“I would say this is critical,” said Rep. Eli Crane, Republican of Arizona, one of eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy. “It leads to further disappointment.”

A spokesman for Mr Johnson did not respond to a request for comment. But several House Republicans defended him, arguing that the extremists’ demands were unrealistic.

“We voted for this package knowing that things would get killed in the Senate,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it wouldn’t be included in the final bill.”

Congress has passed an annual military policy bill for more than sixty consecutive years, and members of both parties believe that Johnson will be able to help maintain this record. The Senate voted Thursday to begin debating the compromise defense bill and pass it next week; it is expected that the Chamber will deal with it later.

Another major challenge to passage could arise from the last-minute addition of a short-term extension of a surveillance law known as Section 702 that allows the government to collect the communications of aliens abroad without a warrant, even when targets talk to Americans.

More than 50 Republicans and Democrats signed a letter last week, arguing that it would be irresponsible to extend the program without significant changes. This week the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees approved, on a bipartisan basis, rival bills to limit the program. The defense bill would extend that until April 19 to give lawmakers more time to iron out differences between competing bills.

But due to a quirk in the way Congress wrote the law that created it, that seemingly short extension could actually keep the program alive until 2025.

The addition of the Section 702 extension prompted a wave of fresh recriminations Thursday from conservatives, who were busy trying to drum up votes against the bill.

“I’m going to have to do more than just oppose it,” said Rep. Chip Roy, Republican of Texas in a post on social media, in response to a senator who declared himself against the extension. Roy, a member of the Freedom Caucus, sits on the Rules Committee, which controls what legislation comes to the House and in what form.

Some Republicans are also angry that the bill does not address the Pentagon’s policy of allowing service members to take leave and be reimbursed for transportation expenses if they must travel to obtain an abortion or certain cancer treatments. fertility because such procedures are not available where they reside. The policy was created after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving the nation with a patchwork of state abortion laws.

The legislation also omits a House-passed provision to limit transgender health services available to military members and their families.

The bill, however, includes limited restrictions on several initiatives, including a cap on salaries and hiring for positions dedicated exclusively to such training programs, and a ban on teaching critical race theory in military academies and schools . It also includes a ban on requiring Department of Defense personnel to identify with preferred pronouns and a ban on officially displaying “unapproved” flags, including banners signaling LGBTQ pride.

Republicans also won provisions establishing a review board to consider reinstatement petitions from service members let go for refusing to comply with the military’s now-defunct Covid-19 vaccine mandate and an office of special inspector general to monitor how U.S. military assistance to Ukraine is used.

The bill, however, maintains a program to send Ukraine $300 million a year for the next two years, even though a majority of House Republicans voted against that program this fall.

Charlie Savage contributed to the reporting.