Freedom Caucus leaders signal support for defense bill

Leaders of the conservative House Freedom Caucus indicated Friday that they’ll support an annual defense budget bill on the House floor, providing a huge boost to Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and GOP leaders as they scramble to rally enough support to move the must-pass package to the Senate later this week. 

Freedom Caucus conservatives had balked at an initial, bipartisan version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed through the Armed Services Committee last month by an overwhelming 58-1 vote. Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), the group’s chairman, called that bill “untenable.”

But the approval of a series of conservative amendments Thursday — including measures to curb Pentagon policies on abortion and transgender rights — has invigorated the group’s members, who strongly suggested they will support the package when it hits the floor Friday morning. 

“It has improved dramatically,” Perry told reporters in the Capitol on Friday morning, shortly before the scheduled vote. 

Support from the Freedom Caucus will be critical for McCarthy as GOP leaders move to pass the bill on Friday after House Democratic leaders said their caucus will oppose the bill over the conservative culture war amendments. A lack of support from Democrats leaves McCarthy with little room for GOP defections, given the Republicans’ slim majority. 

A history of Freedom Caucus members voting against the NDAA in previous years made the path forward without Democrats unclear. But conservative leaders appearing satisfied by additions on social issues is clearing the way.

The House Freedom Caucus is not taking an official position in support of the bill, Perry said, noting that amendments were still being considered Friday morning and that “there’s always going to be concerns.”

But a number of members of the group, echoing Perry, signaled they’ll back the bill. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) cited Thursday’s “major victories” when voicing her support. 

Still, final passage is hardly a slam dunk. 

Some members of the Freedom Caucus, such as Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.), said Thursday night that they were leaning against voting for the bill. And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who was recently booted from the group, said she intends to oppose the NDAA package after several of her amendments to block Ukraine funding were shot down on the floor Thursday.

Conservatives had won passage of a number of their favored amendments on the House floor Thursday evening, including measures to bar the Pentagon from paying travel costs for service members seeking abortions, bar the Pentagon from paying for gender-affirming surgeries, and gutting diversity and inclusion initiatives.

“The military is not the place for a social experiment,” Perry said. 

Several members of the Freedom Caucus heaped praise on Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) for helping them drive the debate and score victories on the floor. Tuberville has, for weeks, blocked all of President Biden’s Pentagon nominees to protest the administration’s policy of reimbursing the travel expenses of personnel who seek abortions out of state. 

“We joined our colleague Tommy Tuberville in the Senate who stood strong for a long time by himself in the Senate to fight this fight,” said Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas), lead sponsor of the amendment to reverse the Pentagon abortion policy. “He’s got backup here in the House.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who is not a Freedom Caucus member but frequently works with them, credited Tuberville for the conservative amendments passing: “I do not believe we would have achieved the Republican unity in the House but for the courage of Senator Tubervillle on the other side of the rotunda.”

Several other conservative amendments will also get votes on Friday morning ahead of the bill’s final passage. That list includes a measure to prohibit military colleges from considering race in their admissions processes and another to block Biden’s climate change executive orders pertaining to the Defense Department.

Heading into the vote, it’s unclear if McCarthy has the 218 votes he’ll need to pass the measure. Several of the conservative amendments were supported by Democrats, including Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), an anti-abortion Blue Dog who joined Republicans on several of the controversial measures. But even Cuellar has not indicated how he’ll vote on final passage.

Updated at 10:21 a.m.

Tags Eli Crane Freedom Caucus Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Lauren Boebert Marjorie Taylor Greene Matt Gaetz National Defense Authorization Act NDAA Ronny Jackson Scott Perry Tommy Tuberville

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