Republicans will have more opportunities to take aim at Biden administration defense policies they've decried as "woke," including the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, if they take control of Congress in November's midterm elections.
"I think it's one of our very top priorities to clean up the mess the administration has made with the excessive and dangerous COVID mandates on our troops at a time where we have historically low recruitment," said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus in the House.
"Those are issues that we've been very passionate about in the minority, and I guarantee we'll be just as passionate about them when we get the majority," Banks added when asked by Military.com about blocking diversity and equity initiatives Republicans have inaccurately labeled "critical race theory" and anti-extremism efforts.
Any legislation to roll back the vaccine mandate or other administration initiatives is unlikely to become law since it's doubtful President Joe Biden would sign such bills. Further, Democrats are favored to maintain control of the Senate, according to election prediction models, which would likely block such bills from making it to Biden's desk in the first place.
But a House GOP majority could pass messaging bills, set hearing agendas and launch investigations, with Republicans vowing that the vaccine mandate, diversity initiatives, anti-extremism efforts and other Pentagon programs they've griped about over the last two years are at the top of their to-do list.
The official House Republican agenda for next year, rolled out last month by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is vague on the party's plans for defense policies.
Dubbed the "Commitment to America," the plan promises Republicans will "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."
While the plan offers no more specifics beyond those four bullet points, Republicans' focus at House Armed Services Committee hearings and during debate over the annual defense policy provides a window into their priorities.
"When it comes to the posture hearings and the legislative process of the NDAA, I think you can expect more of the same from what you've seen the last couple of years," said Banks, an Armed Services Committee member.
During consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual defense policy bill known by its acronym, over the last two years, Republicans filed a slew of amendments aimed at weakening or entirely reversing the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate; banning the military from promoting "critical race theory," which is an academic framework largely confined to graduate-level courses but has become a label the GOP applies to any diversity initiative; and disbanding or stymying the Pentagon's efforts to root out extremists from the ranks.
The amendments have failed largely along party lines.
House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., who is in line to be chairman of the committee if Republicans take the majority, said he'd prioritize personnel issues if he is leading the panel next year. He offered the example of boosting compensation packages, an issue he has long championed.
But when pressed about the issues his party has focused on during the NDAA debate, Rogers said he considers that to be part of his goal of improving recruitment and retention.
"All this wokeness in the military, we are going to be aggressively trying to root that stuff out," Rogers said.
The Pentagon, which already mandated more than a dozen other vaccinations for troops, argues the COVID-19 mandate is needed to ensure troops are healthy and ready to deploy. But Republicans maintain that the mandate is discriminatory since few religious exemptions have been granted and that it risks weakening the military by potentially leading to the discharge of thousands of troops.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon says its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are needed to attract the widest possible net of recruits from an ever-shrinking pool of Americans eligible to serve and that, while extremists in the military are rare, even one is too many and risks rotting unit cohesion and good order. But Republicans argue these efforts amount to ideological purges of conservatives and distract from the military's core mission of fighting and winning wars.
Even if Republican control of the House wouldn't allow the party to directly enact its agenda, it could put an end to several Democratic goals for the military.
Democrats have already been struggling over the last two years of congressional control to enact some of their goals because their majorities are so slim. Republican votes are often needed on the NDAA and annual defense spending bill since some progressives always oppose those bills over the Pentagon budget.
But losing the majority would likely doom hope of legislation any time soon to codify open transgender military service or protect abortion rights for service members and veterans, among other Democratic ambitions staunchly opposed by Republicans. For example, at a recent press conference on the Department of Veterans Affairs' new abortion policy, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, stressed that Democrats need "two more Democratic senators here and [to] hold onto the House" in order to pass any pro-abortion rights legislation.
If Congress is divided next year as election models predict, House Republicans' most potent power could be investigations, since the majority has the ability to subpoena officials reluctant to testify. Most relevant for the military could be Republicans' pledge to probe last year's withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In August, ahead of the first anniversary of the chaotic Afghanistan exit, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, released what he described as an interim report on his investigation into the withdrawal that was based largely on open-source information. While the report was light on new details, it offered a road map of his plans for further investigation if Republicans take the majority, including a vow to subpoena officials and documents, mostly from the State Department.
"The State Department's refusal to provide this committee with any of the requested information related to the withdrawal and the resulting evacuation will not stop me or any other committee Republicans from continuing this investigation until all our questions are answered and people are held accountable," McCaul said in an August statement. "We owe this to the American people, and especially to our brave service men and women who served in Afghanistan and lost friends there."
Acknowledging there's a possibility legislation could die in the Senate, some of the GOP's biggest firebrands are also vowing to use any leverage they have in debates about government funding and the debt limit to advance their goals -- essentially threatening government shutdowns or the United States defaulting on its debt.
"That is an ironclad, 100% demand I have Republican leadership: We will use the funding mechanism, we will use the debt ceiling to extract change," Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, told reporters last week. "We must not allow the continuation of the vaccine mandates that are harming our men and women in uniform."