House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on a major defense and national security policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, on Wednesday. It’s likely to be the only legislative accomplishment they achieve before leaving for the the end of the year, if it does indeed pass. The bill authorizes nearly $900 billion in defense and national security, though it doesn’t include funding—it just directs where the eventual funding bill will be spent. What the new House-Senate conference report doesn’t do is overturn the Pentagon’s abortion policy or strip health care from transgender troops.
That’s enough to have members of the hard-right House, which loaded their version of the bill up with all those toxic provisions, howling and vowing to vote against the bill. The bigger problem in the House, though, is Speaker Mike Johnson’s bungling of another provision in the NDAA. The conference committee decided to add a short-term extension of the nation’s warrantless surveillance powers in the bill, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, after several misfires on the issue from Johnson.
In the course of the last week or so, Johnson has taken three different positions on getting that done. On Nov. 29, he said he wanted to include an extension of it until Feb. 2. Then on Tuesday of this week, he told the GOP conference that he would put two competing reauthorization bills—one from House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan and another from House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner—on the floor in a head-to-head matchup. Whichever bill got the most votes would be sent to the Senate. Punchbowl News reported that he had instructed the members of the defense authorization conference to keep the FISA extension out of the bill, and “got cheers from conservatives for this statement.” Then on Wednesday, he made a complete about-face, agreeing to include an extension of the surveillance powers until April.
That same day, Jordan’s committee passed his bipartisan overhaul of FISA in committee by a 35-2 margin. Jordan had every expectation of his bill passing and wanted it to go to the floor next week, as he thought Johnson had promised. That’s precisely the kind of indecision and flip-flopping that already has Johnson in trouble with his fractious caucus, and since they are all unappeasable, it’s not going to get any better for him.
The Senate took up the defense authorization on Thursday with the initial procedural vote, which gives Johnson the weekend to try to smooth ruffled feathers and get the bill done on their side next week, likely the last substantive thing that will happen before they leave for Christmas.
That’s the worry for Ukraine and other countries in need of aid: that the House will leave town before the Senate passes its $110.5 billion supplemental foreign assistance package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. There’s been no advance in the stalemate on that issue since GOP senators threw their border security tantrum Tuesday. It’s looking likelier by the day that the urgently needed aid for Ukraine is not going to be passed before the end of the year.
And when Congress returns in January, as Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington reminds everyone, they’re going to have to get serious about passing government funding. Her concern is that Johnson’s supposed fallback proposal—to just extend current funding until the end of the fiscal year—will end up being the default. "It’s dangerous and a non-starter," the Senate Appropriations Committee chair told Politico Wednesday. "Everybody needs to understand that it’s dangerous, and we can’t go there."
She’s right to be worried. The budget agreement that President Joe Biden and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy made back in May tried to avert just that eventuality by levying cuts if lawmakers extended funding with continuing resolutions. The $777 billion now budgeted for non-defense programs would plummet to $704 billion if regular funding bills aren’t passed.
Murray is also right to be worried that it’s Johnson in charge of figuring this out for the House. His combination of inexperience and arrogance makes him an unpredictable and dangerous negotiating partner.
Ukraine Update: Trump, Putin prevail with Republican senators
White House has things to say as Speaker Johnson reverses course on impeachment inquiry
The honeymoon is ending for Mike Johnson