Bigger defense budgets, heavier scrutiny of military aid to Ukraine and a tougher line on China are all on the horizon should Republicans take control of the House or Senate after midterm elections, experts say.
Though not at the forefront of the 2022 midterms, foreign policy and national security issues will likely get a shakeup with a GOP takeover of either or both chambers, with wide-ranging impacts that could happen quickly after Nov. 8.
Experts already have their eyes on a spate of defense topics – both global and domestic – that are poised to change under a new Congress, ranging from spending levels to social policies and everything in between, Arnold Punaro, a retired three-star general and former staff director on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Hill.
“How do we deter China, particularly vis-à-vis Taiwan? . . . How much should really be invested in dealing with climate change as it relates to national security? The vaccine mandate, recruiting challenges; these are all things that they’re going to ask,” he said.
Top GOP defense priorities were first highlighted in House Republicans’ “Commitment to America,” released in September, which laid out their goals should they wrestle back the majority.
The lawmakers promise to “support our troops, invest in an efficient, effective military, establish a Select Committee on China, and exercise peace through strength with our allies to counter increasing global threats.”
Republican leadership has not given specific details as to how it would achieve such goals but expected to drive many of their wants is an increase in defense budget toplines, with the sweeping defense appropriations bill to rise in fiscal 2024 should Republicans take more control, according to Punaro.
While the fiscal 2023 defense budget is still being worked out between the House and Senate, lawmakers are expected to agree to a $815 billion defense budget, about 9 percent higher than last year’s spending.
Higher inflation costs drove much of that increase, but Republicans are expected to push for even more money next year, following past examples from a Republican-controlled House and Senate, Punaro said.
In keeping an eye on Congressional spending, among the most watched of the changes will be foreign aid – particularly to Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia – with a split on the issue between a small number of populist GOP House members and those in the establishment party.
The United States has given Ukraine nearly $20 billion in lethal aid since the war began in February, but Kyiv has stressed that more will be needed for defense as well as humanitarian efforts as Russia continues to damage critical Ukrainian infrastructure.
While Kyiv’s leaders believe a GOP-led House or Senate won’t pull back on giving Ukraine weapons, they are preparing for a scenario where Republicans may look to curtail future economic aid to their country, said Daniel Vajdich, a lobbyist that works with Ukrainian officials.
“Ukraine isn’t worried, but there is a recognition in Kyiv that the nature of the conversation may evolve in the coming weeks and months,” Vajdich told The Hill.
He added that Ukrainians “are constantly engaging with Congress” and “feel confident that the vast majority of lawmakers understand what’s at stake and what a Russian victory would mean, not just for Ukraine, but for the United States itself.”
The issue of foreign military aid in next year’s Congress was highlighted after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, potentially the next House speaker, in October said there would be no “blank check” for Ukraine if Republicans take control.
“People are going to be sitting in a recession, and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” McCarthy told Punchbowl News. “Ukraine is important, but at the same time it can’t be the only thing they do, and it can’t be a blank check.”
McCarthy has since tried to downplay the statement, saying he believes aid to Ukraine is important and was only arguing for more oversight.
“I support making sure that we move forward to defeat Russia in that program. But there should be no blank check on anything. We are $31 trillion in debt,” McCarthy said on CNBC last month.
Punaro also didn’t believe Republican leadership would allow a pullback in monetary help for Ukraine, pointing to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has vowed that a GOP-led Senate would go beyond what the Biden administration has provided and “focus its oversight on ensuring timely delivery of needed weapons and greater allied assistance to Ukraine.”
“You’ve got the isolationist wings in both parties that stir the pot. . . .[but] I think the leadership will be able to convince the American people and convince a majority in Congress that the risk of Russia and Putin taking over Ukraine is far greater than the reverse,” Punaro said.
And when asked about the effect a GOP House might have on aid to Ukraine, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the administration has “had excellent bipartisan support to date when it comes to Ukraine, and so the department will continue to work closely with Congress on this important issue.”
Republican lawmakers are also expected to press on several social issues, particularly the Pentagon’s 2021 COVID-19 vaccine mandate, abortion access, numerous defense policy changes dealing with diversity, gender, inclusion and investigating extremism in the ranks.
Those issues have caused several heated exchanges between conservative lawmakers and Pentagon officials when debated in defense policy hearings over the past year. Most notable among them was a tense back and forth in April between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) over allegations the military is pushing wokeism and socialism.
Punaro said he expects those conversations to continue into 2023 should Republicans take full or partial control of Congress but that GOP lawmakers, while they will question several policies, likely won’t be successful at significantly changing them.
“I think, to their credit, the defense committees put national security ahead of partisan politics, and I think they’ll do that again,” he said.
And on the topic of China, expect more scrutiny by Republican lawmakers as to how to deter the major world power with support from both sides of the aisle, Punaro added.
“In a new Congress, I think [GOP lawmakers] are going look at the National Defense Strategy and determine what parts of that they are very supportive of and which parts they challenge,” he said, referring to the Biden administration’s recently released document that listed China among its biggest challenges.
“I think they’re going to ask a lot of questions about this concept of integrated deterrence and does that really deter people like Iran and China? . . . [But] you’ve got strong bipartisan support, there’s no argument there.”
House Republicans already set up a China Task Force at the start of 2020, but their “Commitment to America” document promises a new Select Committee on China.
Details on the committee are limited, but like the China Task Force, it’s expected to tackle numerous bipartisan proposals including working with Taiwan to provide the independent island with more U.S. weapons as China bears down on Taipei with threats to bring it under Beijing’s control.