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House passes defense bill over conservative protests

Critics say the bill was a missed opportunity to make reforms

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, speaks at a press conference on appropriations with members of the House Freedom Caucus and conservative senators on Capitol Hill, Nov. 29. Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein

House passes defense bill over conservative protests

Conservative Republicans in Congress hoped the new House speaker would answer their legislative wish list before Christmas by keeping their top-line amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). But in one of its last actions before the winter break on Thursday, the House passed a defense bill that will largely keep the status quo without any of conservatives’ suggested improvements. It’s not exactly coal in their stockings, but it isn’t the gift they wanted.

“I’ve expressed my disappointment to the speaker. I hope we do better in the new year,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said on his way out of the Capitol on Thursday.

The bill passed by a vote of 310-118, with 74 Republicans voting against the bill. Both chambers of Congress originally passed the NDAA in July, and Thursday’s vote finalized a modified version approved by the Senate. The bill now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for approval.

Over the past few weeks, Johnson has negotiated behind closed doors with Senate leadership to make the bill viable in the Democratic-controlled chamber. Past versions of the NDAA have attracted numerous amendments, serving as a vehicle for unrelated policy priorities. The 2023 bill carried 900 amendments. Republicans wanted this year’s NDAA to eliminate taxpayer-supported travel for abortion procedures and transgender surgeries, enable protection for service members who had resigned for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, prohibit critical race theory, and more.

To Chip Roy, R-Texas, those were low-hanging policy wins that the party missed out on. In a floor speech, he rebuked the outcome of the negotiations.

“We do this every year. And then we’re told, ‘Congratulations, you just had a conference committee.’” Roy said, referencing the process by which the Senate and House agree to consolidate their bills. “No, you didn’t! Five people didn’t even sign the conference report. A deal was cut by leadership to shove a predetermined bill.”

Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told me the NDAA shouldn’t be subject to partisan policy objectives.

“The National Defense Authorization Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation that we are required to pass during the year as part of the effort to protect America’s national security,” he said. “It’s the right thing to make sure that it is free of any extraneous right-wing policy priorities,”

An even greater frustration for some Republicans was the inclusion of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act extension in the NDAA. The extension authorizes the intelligence community access to private devices and communications without a warrant on a limited basis until April 2024. Critics say the government has misused its authority under FISA for years with little consequence. Faced with its expiration on Dec. 31, lawmakers had hoped to use the deadline to implement reform.

“I was opposed to the NDAA today because of clean FISA reauthorization. They’ve been spying on the American people; they’ve been spying on you guys with the microphones in your hands right now. That needs to end immediately,” Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., said.

Not all Republicans see the extension as a loss.

“We need FISA to be very, very carefully considered,” said Rep. John Duarte, R-Calif. “It’s too bad it’s been pushed to the end—we’ve had a lot of work to do. But we have to do it right. So, I’m in favor of a FISA extension under current rules so we can come back and do the work it deserves later.”

Despite bipartisan support for improving FISA, Republicans remain divided over two versions of a reform bill. Johnson decided the party needed to deliberate further to produce one final bill that could curry the whole party’s favor.

For now, the House of Representatives heads home for the holidays and will not return until Jan. 9, 2024, with many legislative priorities—and deadlines—on the horizon. In addition to continuing negotiations on FISA, Congress must contend with appropriations, Ukraine aid, and border security.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


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