Defense bill battle showcases 2024 GOP hopefuls

Greg Nash/Bonnie Cash

An intraparty fight over the annual defense authorization bill is turning into a showcase for rising conservative stars in the Senate who have their eyes on the White House for 2024.

President Trump has threatened to veto the legislation, and Republican senators weighing White House bids are being careful not to cross him.

Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Ky.) — four GOP senators who are potential presidential candidates in 2024 — voted against the legislation that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support on Friday.

The Senate sent the annual defense authorization bill, which has been enacted for 59 consecutive years, to Trump’s desk after an 84-13 vote.

“Overall, what it shows you is that for these folks who could be the future leaders of the party, it shows you how strong Donald Trump’s hold on the party is,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.

He said the issues being raised in the annual defense bill “are going to be important for the 2024 nominee.”

“The Big Tech part is huge,” O’Connell said, referring to Trump’s complaint that the legislation does not include language repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that provides legal protections to internet companies and allows them to engage in good faith moderation of content on their platforms.

Trump and other conservatives, principally Hawley, are calling for the defense bill to remove those protections.

Trump tweeted on Dec. 1 that unless the “very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk.”

The president over the summer also vowed to veto the measure if it retained an amendment championed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) mandating the Pentagon remove Confederate names from U.S. military property after three years.

Hawley, Cotton and Cruz voted for the Senate version of the bill that included the amendment when it passed on July 23. Paul voted against it. 

Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said that if Trump doesn’t run for president again in 2024, the eventual nominee will still need the backing of his loyal supporters.

“There’s no more convincing argument you can make in favor of your own candidacy than that you supported everything the president supported and opposed everything he opposed. That’s a solid-gold credential to bring to 2024,” Baker said.

GOP strategists say Trump’s continued criticism of the bill makes Friday’s vote on the defense conference report a key measure of where things stand among Republicans jockeying for future influence and support.

“Members are responsive to the president still, even after the election,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide.

“If you are reaching out and trying to get Trump supporters on your side … this is in one sense a vote on Trump’s foreign policy because [the bill has] restrictions on taking troops out of Afghanistan and restrictions on what the president wants to do with troops overseas in general,” he said. “A vote against the president on a veto override would be a vote against an American-first foreign policy.”

Both chambers passed the defense bill with veto-proof majorities, setting up a showdown should Trump decide to send it back to Congress.

Paul and Cruz highlighted provisions in the bill restricting Trump’s ability to pull troops out of Afghanistan as reasons for opposing the legislation on Friday.

“The hawks and the neocons somehow want you to believe, in contrast to all logic, that the president of the United States has the unitary power to go to war anytime he wants, anywhere, free from interference from Congress,” Paul said on the Senate floor. “Yet … in the [National Defense Authorization Act] they say they now want a president that cannot leave a war without their permission.” 

Cruz laid out several arguments for why he opposed the legislation, including that it “interferes with the president’s Article II authority related to overseas deployments, significantly diminishing our ability to execute military strategies that protect our national interests and to wind down endless wars.”

Cruz also cited language “requiring the Department of Defense to rename our military bases in a political effort to erase our nation’s history” as well as language restricting the president’s power to invoke the Insurrection Act to quell domestic protests, saying it would restrict “the ability of law enforcement to protect our communities during violent riots.”

Hawley has highlighted his opposition to language ordering the secretary of Defense to remove the names of Confederate generals or other allusions to the Confederacy from all U.S. military property.

He has also criticized the bill for not including any language to overhaul Section 230, which he has called “a liability shielding gift from the U.S. to ‘Big Tech.’”

“There’s no reform of Section 230,” he said, also noting that Warren’s amendment requiring Confederate names to be removed from military bases remained intact.

O’Connell said language reforming Big Tech’s liability shield is a hot-button topic with conservatives who feel social media platforms censor pro-Trump content and may have helped President-elect Joe Biden win the election.

“We see the power that Big Tech wields,” he said. “It really fits in with a lot of the things Trump has been talking about.”

Facebook and Twitter came under criticism during the 2020 campaign for temporarily limiting the sharing of a New York Post article claiming a “smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad.”

The Biden campaign responded by pointing out that investigations by the press and congressional committees concluded that Joe Biden carried out official U.S. policy toward Ukraine when he was vice president and did not engage in any wrongdoing.

In addition to his Section 230 opposition, Hawley emerged this summer as one of the most outspoken opponents of Warren’s amendment on base renaming, which several GOP senators said they supported after the language was modified to extend the renaming timeline from one to three years. 

“I’m disappointed with it. I just don’t think that the National Defense Authorization Act should be used for social engineering. As I’ve said many times before on these base names, this is a conversation that needs to happen in public with public input,” Hawley said. “It shouldn’t be unilaterally mandated.” 

“We were told over and over it would come out in conference,” he added.

Darling said the debate over renaming military bases named after Confederate generals such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Camp Beauregard in Louisiana and Fort Benning in Georgia could influence voters in Southern primary states four years from now. 

“The Confederate base issue is important to many Republican voters who live in the South who just don’t like the idea of bases being changed,” he said. “That’s an issue that’s going to move maybe enough voters to decide a primary in the South.”

Cotton excoriated the legislation for containing the Warren amendment, which was modified during a closed-door markup with Cotton’s input, though he eventually voted against it during the committee’s session because it did not exempt military memorials from being renamed. 

“I’ve supported the annual National Defense Authorization Act” for “many years,” but “at some point you have to draw the line, and this year is where I draw it,” Cotton said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

He also cited the lack of language changing Section 230, which he called “a giveaway to big tech oligarchs who get to censor the American people without consequence.”

Tags 2024 defense authorization bill Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Josh Hawley NDAA presidential hopefuls Rand Paul Section 230 Ted Cruz Tom Cotton
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