'Time of Uncertainty': House Speaker Fiasco Sparks Concerns over Annual Defense Bill, Ukraine Aid

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters hours after he was ousted as speaker of the House, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

The future of Congress' annual defense policy bill, as well as U.S. aid to Ukraine, is murky as House Republicans scramble to choose a new leader after lawmakers voted to remove the speaker for the first time in U.S. history.

The future of Congress' annual defense policy bill, as well as U.S. aid to Ukraine, is murky as House Republicans scramble to choose a new leader after lawmakers voted to remove the speaker for the first time in U.S. history.

The drama over the ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Tuesday ground the chamber to a halt at a time when the House and Senate still need to hash out the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, the sweeping bill that sets everything from the annual troop pay raise to standards for troop living conditions.

"This is a time of uncertainty, so anyone who is certain should be questioned," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the key architects of the annual bill, said Wednesday.

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The deadline for passing the bill into law is generally considered the end of the calendar year since that's when authorities for special pay and bonuses expire.

Reed told reporters that negotiations between Congress' two chambers will "keep moving" despite the House disarray. He said his counterparts in the House -- Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Calif. -- are "extremely responsible and professional" negotiating partners.

Still, Reed would not rule out the possibility of the House chaos bleeding over into NDAA negotiations.

The House and Senate took vastly different approaches in their NDAAs this year, meaning the final form of any negotiated bill is uncertain and the degree of difficulty for reconciling the two versions was already higher this year than in the past.

The Senate proposed a mostly bipartisan blueprint for Pentagon policy, while the House loaded up its proposed version of the bill with partisan riders on abortion and LGBTQ+ troops to win votes from hard-line conservatives.

The partisan House NDAA was one reason cited by House Democrats on Tuesday for not coming to the rescue of McCarthy, who was cast out by members of his own party.

Meanwhile, what's more likely to be imperiled by McCarthy's forced exit is future U.S. aid to Ukraine.

The U.S. funding was already in doubt after Congress left out money for Kyiv's war against invading Russian forces in the stopgap spending measure it passed Saturday to prevent a government shutdown. While senators pledged they would take up a stand-alone bill with Ukraine funding, it was unclear at the time whether McCarthy would allow a vote on the aid with his job on the line.

With McCarthy now gone, future Ukraine funding is on even shakier ground. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, one of the candidates to be McCarthy's replacement as speaker, told reporters Wednesday he would oppose moving forward on an aid package for Ukraine if he wins the speakership.

"The most pressing issue on Americans' mind is not Ukraine," Jordan said. "It is the border situation, and it is crime on the streets."

Last week, Jordan voted against providing $300 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a nine-year-old Pentagon fund for weapons contracts and training for Ukrainian forces.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., another speaker candidate, supported the funding, while Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., who is reportedly planning on running for speaker but has not formally announced his candidacy, voted against it.

Biden administration officials are warning they have nearly exhausted the funding Congress has previously approved for the war and that failure to continue the flow of weapons and other assistance uninterrupted will be dire for Ukraine's fight for survival.

President Joe Biden said Wednesday he's worried about not being able to provide aid to Ukraine and that he plans to make a "major speech" in the coming days about "why it's critically important for the United States and our allies that we keep our commitment."

Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, downplayed concerns about the future of Ukraine aid, contending that behind closed doors Jordan talked about tying Ukraine funding to U.S. border policy changes rather than outright opposing it.

But McCaul also stressed the importance of continuing to support Ukraine.

"I don't think we can pull out of Ukraine," McCaul said. "We pulled out of Afghanistan, and look what happened there. If we're projecting weakness, then all we get is aggression from Russia, from China, Iran and North Korea."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

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