Here's How New House Speaker Mike Johnson Voted on Veteran and Military Issues

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Rep. Mike Johnson takes the oath to be the new House speaker
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., takes the oath to be the new House speaker from the Dean of the House Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The man who became speaker of the House on Wednesday after three weeks of GOP infighting has a solidly conservative voting record that includes opposing both the sweeping toxic exposure bill for veterans passed last year and the Pentagon's abortion policy.

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., won the speakership Wednesday with every Republican vote. He was the GOP's fourth choice for speaker since Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was ousted from the job at the beginning of October, effectively shutting down the House until a new leader was chosen.

The victory marked a rapid rise for Johnson, who joined Congress in 2017 and since 2020 has been the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, a messaging job that made him the fifth highest-ranking Republican in the House. While he has generally kept a low profile for the last six years, he was perhaps most well-known before Wednesday for playing a leading role in Republicans' efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

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On veterans issues, last year he voted against the PACT Act, considered the biggest increase of veterans benefits in a generation that expanded benefits and health care for those exposed to toxic substances during their military service. While some top Republicans ended up supporting the version of the PACT Act that became law, more staunch conservatives continued to oppose it over the estimated $278 billion price tag.

Johnson also voted against a year-end package of smaller veterans and military family measures last year. Among other provisions, the bill mandated that states recognize service members and spouses' valid professional licenses from other states and ensured veterans won't lose GI Bill benefits if schools have to close in a future emergency like they did for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson has supported major Republican-backed veterans legislation, including the 2018 Mission Act that made it easier for veterans to see doctors outside the Department of Veterans Affairs system.

He also voted for a 2017 bill intended to make it easier to fire problem employees at the VA. The VA said this year it was no longer using the authority granted by the bill because it was rendered useless by years of litigation, infuriating Republicans.

Johnson has also backed widely popular veterans bills, including voting for the Forever GI Bill in 2017 and co-sponsoring the Major Richard Star Act, a top priority this year for veterans groups that would give service members who medically retire full access to both military retirement pay and VA disability benefits.

Johnson, who was a lawyer before turning to politics, has served on the House Armed Services Committee since 2021.

He has voted for final passage for every annual defense policy bill since coming to Congress, including voting to override then-President Donald Trump's veto of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act over its mandate to remove Confederate names from military bases.

Johnson has also supported controversial, conservative amendments to the NDAA, including this year voting to ban gender-affirming health care for transgender troops and to repeal the Pentagon policy giving troops travel reimbursements and leave for abortions.

In a letter to his colleagues released shortly before Wednesday's speaker vote, Johnson pledged to pass a House-Senate compromise version of this year's NDAA in December.

By contrast to his regular support for the NDAA, Johnson has voted against nearly every omnibus government funding bill since coming to Congress. Omnibuses combine funding for every government agency into one bill and are typically opposed by conservatives.

He voted against the stopgap spending measure Congress passed last month to prevent a government shutdown. Meanwhile, he supported the House's Pentagon and Veterans Affairs spending bills, which were both packed with GOP policy riders such as provisions to bar abortion services, transgender health care, and LGBTQ+ Pride flags at the VA.

As more Republicans have come out in opposition to Ukraine aid, Johnson has joined them. He voted in favor of amendments to the NDAA and Pentagon spending bill that would have stripped Ukraine funding from the bills and against a stand-alone bill last month to provide Ukraine $300 million.

Government funding and Ukraine aid will be among his first challenges as speaker. Current government funding expires in less than a month, while the White House has requested Congress also approve roughly $106 billion in funding for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific and border security.

In his letter to colleagues Wednesday, Johnson said he would propose another stopgap spending measure to keep the government open past Nov. 17, when current funding expires. His plan would extend funding to either Jan. 15 or April 15, depending on what the majority of the House Republican conference supports.

Either date could risk an across-the-board 1% cut to government spending, including at the Pentagon and the VA. Under the deal Congress approved earlier this year to stave off a U.S. debt default, the government must start planning for a 1% spending cut if full-year appropriations bills aren't passed by Jan. 1. The cuts wouldn't actually take effect until April 30.

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

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