ARLINGTON, Va. ― The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee previewed his party’s negotiating strategy and red lines for hammering out a compromise defense policy bill loaded with partisan amendments from the conservative Freedom Caucus, while speaking at the annual Defense News Conference on Wednesday.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said Democrats could possibly look at modified versions of certain House Freedom Caucus amendments added to the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, but expressed skepticism that would be enough to reach an accord with the right-flank of the Republican caucus.
“There is no National Defense Authorization Act that Chip Roy votes for and Democrats vote for,” Smith told Defense N ews, referencing the Republican congressman from Texas. “Whatever modest little things we could do are simply not going to be enough for the Freedom Caucus.”
Roy is one of the Freedom Caucus members who added partisan amendments to the defense bill in July. The amendments prompted Democrats to vote against the bill in droves, resulting in narrow passage of the typically bipartisan legislation in a 219-210 vote. A Roy amendment to the bill would bar the Pentagon from implementing Biden’s executive orders on climate change.
The Senate passed its version of the defense policy bill in July with robust bipartisan support in an 86-11 vote, setting up a showdown with the House over the Freedom Caucus amendments that Democrats view as poison pills.
Other Freedom Caucus amendments that House Republicans added to their bill would stop the Pentagon from implementing diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, initiatives, its abortion travel leave policy and medical care for transgender troops.
“The bill that we passed out of committee had some criticisms of DEI in a variety of different forms,” said Smith. “If they wish to regulate how they do DEI at the Pentagon, if they’re truly worried about extreme proposals and things like critical race theory, we can talk about that.”
“We can also look at the provisions on the climate change initiatives,” he added. “I don’t know if there’s some way to subtly modify those.”
Smith stressed it’s important for Congress to pass a compromise defense bill because it authorizes support for service members, including basic housing allowance, various pay incentives for recruitment and retention and military construction projects that encompass childcare centers.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., allowed votes on the partisan amendments to secure support from the Freedom Caucus, who threatened to otherwise use procedural hurdles to stall the bill.
“The question is what will McCarthy and House Republicans feel they have to do to appease the right-wing of their party,” said Smith. “What Kevin McCarthy is trying to do, is he is trying to appease the unappeasable.”
Smith noted Congress faces the same dilemma while passing spending legislation needed to avoid a government shutdown by the end of the month. He said that Congress typically tries to find ways to pay troops during shutdowns, “the level of uncertainty that this will throw at service members and their families cannot be overstated.”
Further complicating matters, McCarthy finds himself at odds with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., over additional military spending to circumvent the $886 billion defense cap laid out in the debt ceiling agreement.
Smith said he does not support additional addition defense spending levels beyond the debt ceiling cap, with the exception of $13 billion in additional Ukraine military aid the White House has asked for.
He added that he opposes another defense bill provision from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., that would establish a special inspector general for Ukraine, an initiative also opposed by the White House. Smith said Democrats compromised with Republicans in committee markup to insert the Gaetz language as part of a package of bipartisan amendments.
Smith said “we are doing very aggressive oversight” on Ukraine, referring to the Pentagon and State Department inspectors general overseeing military aid and the Government Accountability Office.
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.