Pentagon & Congress

New House speaker could bring a new style to defense

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has not been a public figure on defense issues in recent years, but he is now poised to become a key influencer on every Pentagon decision that passes through Congress for years to come.

The five-term California Republican is the frontrunner to replace retiring Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, as Speaker of the House when members vote on leadership changes next week.

McCarthy's quick rise has been credited to his ability to forge relationships among his fellow party members, in large part through recent successful election fundraising.

Stronger partnerships could prove dramatic for the fractured GOP caucus and for comity on Capitol Hill, but McCarthy's potential impact on defense and veterans issues is less clear.

Mackenzie Eaglen, defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said McCarthy has increased efforts to reach out to defense insiders since becoming the House majority leader a year ago.

"Even the effort of doing so sets him apart in (House) leadership, most of whom have been indifferent at best to defense issues, budgets and policies during the Obama administration," Eaglen said.

That sentiment was echoed by military and veterans advocates. Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America, said Boehner typically relied on his various committee chairs to steer defense issues, but McCarthy has been a more visible presence, sitting in on meetings and events.

"He's actually closer in style to (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi," Ryan said. "He's had more interaction with us, and gotten a chance to listen directly to us. That's not a criticism of Boehner, who has a lot of confidence in his chairmen. But it is a different style."

Eaglen noted that in recent months McCarthy has begun to ramp up his involvement on a number of policy issues, holding roundtables on a host of defense matters.

On Monday, McCarthy outlined his foreign policy priorities in a speech at a John Hay Initiative event, blasting the White House for ineffective leadership and a lack of support for American allies.

He called for lethal aid to Ukrainian forces and a no-fly zone over northern Syria. But he stayed away from specifics on defense budget cuts and military end-strength drawdowns, arguing more generally that "strength and resolve bring peace and security."

Outside experts wonder if the change in speakers will really mean much for the ongoing fights between defense supporters and fiscal hawks.

"It's still not clear what McCarthy really is," said Laicie Heeley, a Stimson Center fellow on defense issues. "He is generally seen as another John Boehner type, looking to build consensus. He isn't seen as unfriendly to defense … but he's walking into the same storm."

Pentagon officials for years have stated that the most helpful move Congress could make on defense issues would be to provide more stability and predictability from Capitol Hill, especially in terms of the military budget.

If elected as speaker, McCarthy will have a chance to influence that issue immediately. The budget extension passed by Congress on Wedensday runs out in mid-December. Without support from his caucus members on a new deal, the Pentagon and other government agencies could face another partial shutdown just before Christmas.

Staff writer Joe Gould contributed to this story.

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