How the Republicans Actually Fought Against the Democrats on NDAA–and Won

(L-R) U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) talk at a reception held by President Donald Trump for House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders in the State Dining Room of …
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

The GOP actually won this one.

Republicans, it seemed, were on the verge of losing yet again in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) fight with Democrats angling to include a number of controversial and unrelated provisions including the Journalism Competition and Preservative Act (JCPA)–a controversial bill that would create media cartels.

Conservatives have been furious with Republican leaders in recent years because the dynamic is usually that the GOP always caves to the Democrats no matter the issue or bill, the only questions being how fast and how much the GOP caves.

But all that changed this week, as a ragtag and frankly odd coalition of Republicans banded together to force the hand of their leaders—and make them fight—and lo and behold the Republicans actually won almost everything in the NDAA fight. The coalition included members from a broad swath across the conference, ranging from Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) to Thom Tillis (R-NC) and everyone in between:

The process for a big must-pass bill like the NDAA starts out much earlier in the year in the House and Senate Armed Services Committees where members—driven by the majority-chosen chairmen but with heavy input from all the members, including the minority—draft the core of the legislation. This is where the mostly noncontroversial stuff that actually serves to address the core purpose of the defense package—authorizing the military and its activities—comes together.

The Democrats spent all year dilly-dallying on this, and rather than getting it all done before the election, they instead delayed until now, in the lame duck session of Congress, to consider it—putting them up against a legislative deadline to get the NDAA done, thereby raising the stakes of the nature of the legislation’s must-pass urgency. Technically, if the NDAA fails, the military loses its legal authority to operate, so Congress absolutely must pass a new NDAA authorizing the military for national security purposes and the president has to sign it to keep the government functioning. Such is the nature of all must-pass bills, by the way, from lifting the debt ceiling to government funding vehicles and so on: Congress has to act or the government will cease to able to operate like normal.

So it is at this stage, up against a looming deadline creating urgency—which is leverage the Democrats actually fabricated by not doing their jobs earlier in the year—that Democrats have traditionally rolled Republicans by foisting into whatever must-pass legislation is being considered, in this case the NDAA, unrelated provisions designed to further their political agenda. What happens is once that traditional core of the legislation is crafted on a bipartisan—essentially nonpartisan—basis, the committee leaders then send that legislative text up the chain to the leadership in Congress which has its own backroom debate about it and what may or may not be added to it.

These leadership negotiations are called, informally on Capitol Hill, discussions between the “Four Corners.” The Four Corners are the four major leaders of the two chambers of Congress—the Speaker of the House, the House Minority Leader, the Senate Majority Leader, and Senate Minority Leader. Between these four people—who are currently respectively Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy, Chuck Schumer, and Mitch McConnell—they generally have the ability to move hugely significant swaths of votes in their respective chambers. If they agree broadly on something, usually they can overcome a filibuster—a 60-vote threshold—in the Senate, and they might even be able to overcome broad hurdles like a two-thirds majority in the House, which is required sometimes when moving quickly on legislation that passes under a suspension of the rules.

It’s in this room where Republicans have frequently over the last decade plus been railroaded by Democrats, who have regularly eked more and more out of the GOP, which always seemed to stand down and give in to the left. Part of that is that Pelosi, despite being a lightning rod for criticism and hated by Republicans, is universally regarded as a master legislator and negotiator. Another part of that dynamic has been that McConnell has been there a long time and often folks like that lose touch with the country. House Republicans, a decade ago, were represented by now former Speaker John Boehner, who was similar to McConnell in this respect and then later by now former Speaker Paul Ryan, who was an ideological foe of conservatives who believe in former President Donald Trump’s America First vision for the party. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, the likely next Speaker of the House, has only ever represented the GOP in this room from a minority in Congress—a very significant minority after the 2018 elections and since 2020’s elections a much slimmer minority but always a minority nonetheless.

So, when it came time this past weekend for the Four Corners to have their negotiations about what to tack onto the NDAA, it seemed like everything was going to go as it always had, at least in modern memory. Pelosi and Schumer pushed to include the JCPA as well as several other add-ons like a marijuana industry banking provision and permitting reforms proposed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and more. While Republicans were fighting to include a repeal of President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for military service members, that seemed like no done deal, and Democrats were using it as leverage to try to force more of their extraneous nonsense into the NDAA.

Democrats looked like they were going to succeed, yet again, and it looked like Republicans would again deflate and disappoint their base. As Breitbart News reported on Monday morning, after the weekend of negotiations, despite McCarthy arguing against it, McConnell had agreed to the JCPA going into the NDAA—and Pelosi and Schumer looked like they were on a glide path to another victory.

That’s when something really interesting happened. The right sprung into high gear, and began fighting back—and hard—particularly against the JCPA’s inclusion but also against the inclusion of other unrelated leftist provisions and for the inclusion of the repeal of the military vaccine mandate. As Breitbart News reported on Tuesday night, the blowback was severe—and it forced the GOP, particularly McConnell, into action back the other way.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” one longtime GOP leadership aide told Breitbart News during the process.

“It’s almost too good to be true, so I wanted to wait until we saw the text before confirming that JCPA and the rest of their nonsense was stripped out and the vax mandate repeal was in,” another said on Tuesday night.

One of the key details several sources with knowledge of the matter told Breitbart News happened was at a policy lunch for Senate Republicans on Tuesday several GOP Senators got up and raised concerns with what was going on. This came more than a full day into the barrage of backlash Republicans were getting for caving to the Democrats on this, and it became clear to GOP Senate leaders–especially McConnell–that the threat Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) made on Fox News earlier that morning that Republicans would filibuster the NDAA if the JCPA and the other unrelated leftist measures were in it was real.

So, McConnell called Pelosi later in the afternoon on Tuesday per several sources familiar with the matter and told her straight up: Either cut the unrelated items like JCPA from the NDAA or the GOP will filibuster the defense bill. Pelosi caved, and cut the nonsense out. Bill text was published later on Tuesday evening demonstrating the GOP victory.

Not only was the JCPA removed, but so was everything else the Democrat leaders tried to add. And the vaccine mandate repeal for military service members was still in. The GOP officially flipped the dynamic and pulled one over on the Democrats.

“If the GOP majority fights against the Left, we win,” incoming House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) told Breitbart News. “Leader McCarthy and House Republicans were firm in their opposition to the vaccine mandate and JCPA, and what do you know, we got results. Let’s keep it up.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) added that the fighting mentality the GOP displayed is a sign of things to come. “I was honored to lead the way in removing the COVID shot mandate for servicemembers in this year’s NDAA because I’ve heard it countless times from Tennesseans: this is no way to treat the men and women who protect our nation,” Blackburn said. “We will not stop fighting against Washington Democrats’ attempts to destroy our freedoms.”

It’s fitting for Republicans that this victory comes as Pelosi is headed for the exits. For the first time in over a decade, she will not, as of January, represent House Democrats in the Four Corners negotiations. After Democrats lost the House majority in the midterm elections, she announced she will leave leadership—though she is staying in Congress—and Democrats have selected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to succeed her as top dog for House Democrats next year.

But also importantly for conservatives who have been frustrated at Republicans sliding and handing victory after victory to the Democrats, this could reset the tone of congressional negotiations in battles to come. Republicans are on the verge of taking control back in the House for the first time since the 2018 midterm elections back during the Trump administration, and in the Senate even McConnell seems a bit more engaged in the fight—even if he at first reflexively caved—now that the base is angry.

Punchbowl News picked up on this dynamic shift with McConnell in its morning newsletter on Friday. After noting that conservatives critical of McConnell were planning a meeting next week to pressure the conference to “more actively confront Democrats,” and with a shift in the structure of the Senate now with Democrats having a clear majority, “McConnell can resume his traditional role as Democrats’ biggest antagonist.” Punchbowl News wrote:

Senate Republicans have seen some shifts from McConnell recently. For instance, McConnell refused to tell Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) what his position was on repealing the Covid vaccine mandate for military service members. This came despite repeated questioning by Paul during a GOP conference meeting several weeks ago, according to several Republican senators. The following week, McConnell told Senate Republicans that he wouldn’t let the annual defense authorization bill pass without the repeal provision. That language was included in the bipartisan NDAA deal.

While it is very late in the game for the GOP to finally get its act together–and this may be a one-off, or it could become the new normal–perhaps there is no better illustration of just how down conservatives were when it looked like there was another cave coming than when many began circulating a YouTube clip of an infamous movie speech that inspired Republicans instead to fight it out and eventually shock Washington by winning the battle.

The clip was of the epic speech from John “Bluto” Blutarsky, John Belushi’s legendary character in the timeless classic Animal House, where Bluto rallies despondent Delta House frat bros to fight back against what they saw as corrupted insiders screwing them over:

So, if a slightly reengaged McConnell combined with an eager McCarthy—mixed together with a very green Jeffries and a bogged down Schumer—comprise the negotiating table for next year in the congressional leadership, things could continue to shift drastically. But the biggest takeaway from all of this is: If Republicans actually fight back, they certainly can get some wins—and this time they did.

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