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Johnson brings defense background to speakership

Louisianan pushed for a larger defense budget, against vaccines and Ukraine aid

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks during a 2020 news conference with other members of the House Republican leadership.
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks during a 2020 news conference with other members of the House Republican leadership. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, elected Wednesday as speaker of the House, brings a defense-focused background to the role as a member of the powerful House Armed Services Committee. 

In that seat, he’s advocated for a larger defense budget and sought wins on social issues that affect the military. However, like many other conservative Republicans, he’s hostile to additional funding for Ukraine’s war against Russia. 

Johnson, who sits on the Readiness and Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittees, believes that “adequate investment is necessary” to maintain U.S. air, land, sea, nuclear and cyber power, according to his website. Last year, he slammed the Biden administration’s fiscal 2023 budget proposal for, in his view, not requesting a defense budget increase large enough to match rising inflation.

And he frequently touts defense spending that benefits his constituents. His Louisiana district contains Barksdale Air Force Base, which is home to Air Force Global Strike Command and is a part of the military’s nuclear triad. The base houses conventional and nuclear-capable B-52 heavy bombers.

Despite many of his GOP colleagues’ opposition to earmarks, Johnson in April requested $7 million in “defense community projects” funding for a medical facility expansion for the 307th Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base.

The language was included in the House version of the fiscal 2024 defense policy bill, alongside other provisions to authorize spending $112 million on a weapons-generation facility for Barksdale Air Force Base and $13.4 million for a new multipurpose athletic field at Fort Johnson near Leesville.

Social issues

Republicans have increasingly used the must-pass defense bill to advance various provisions related to social issues, and Johnson is no exception. 

Last year, Johnson proposed a committee amendment to the fiscal 2023 defense authorization that would have required the Pentagon to rescind the mandate that armed forces members receive COVID-19 vaccines. The amendment was rejected along mostly party lines.

This year, he spoke in defense of an amendment offered by Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, to exempt cadets and midshipmen from repaying service academy tuition if they refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“I just think this is a basic issue of fairness,” he said during the markup. “You know, these cadets enrolled in these respective academies years ago prior to the requirement that they receive the COVID vaccine as part of their military service. Many of them object to the vaccine on legitimate religious and medical grounds.”

The amendment was adopted, 32-27, during the panel’s markup in June. 

Johnson also voted on the floor for provisions that would rescind a Pentagon policy reimbursing troops who must travel to obtain abortions, limit transgender health care in the military and end various diversity and inclusion initiatives within the department. 

Ukraine

Johnson received an “F” rating from the advocacy group Republicans for Ukraine, which lobbies for additional Ukraine security assistance. He voted for amendments to the fiscal 2024 defense bill that would have removed $300 million in assistance for Ukraine, prohibited all security assistance for Ukraine and ended lend-lease authority for Ukraine. 

All amendments were not adopted by large bipartisan majorities. 

Johnson was also one of 57 Republicans to vote against a May 2022 law providing roughly $40 billion in emergency funding to Kyiv. 

“We should not be sending another $40 billion abroad when our own border is in chaos, American mothers are struggling to find baby formula, gas prices are at record highs, and American families are struggling to make ends meet, without sufficient oversight over where the money will go,” Johnson said at the time. 

As speaker, Johnson will have to confront the issue almost immediately. The White House recently requested a $106 billion aid package to assist Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan as well as shore up security at the U.S.-Mexico border. The majority of that funding, $61.4 billion, would go to Ukraine. 

The issue of Ukraine funding, which divides House Republicans, could become a sticking point as lawmakers seek to keep the government open beyond Nov. 17. That’s when the current continuing resolution the government is operating under is set to expire.

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