Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., an Iraq War veteran, served on the House Armed Services Committee since he joined the House of Representatives in 2015. Despite defying historic political trends, Democrats still narrowly lost the House in the 2022 midterm elections, although by a razor-thin margin.

The thin margin proved difficult at the start of the 118th Congress, where a small band of the far-right House Freedom Caucus members refused to support Rep. Kevin McCarthy R-Calif., for Speaker of the House of Representatives.

To win the speaker’s gavel, McCarthy had to offer a number of concessions to the hardliners, including promises to cut spending, which may include defense funding. Republicans also focused on investigating some aspects of President Joe Biden’s national security policies, such as the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan and efforts toward diversity and inclusion in the military.

As Republicans come to power in the House, Gallego sat down with the Military Times podcast the Early Bird Brief to discuss his defense priorities, possible GOP investigations and more going into the new legislative session.

*Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What are some of your biggest priorities for defense policy going into this new Congress as a member of the minority?

A: On the defense side, I’m going to stay on as ranking member of the Intel Special Operations Committee. I want to continue to focus on moving Special Forces away from counterterrorism missions to prepare for great power competition, making sure that we’re effectively fighting China and Russia in the gray zone and preparing our allies for future conflicts.

In addition, I want to continue working on the greater competition with China, whether it comes to making sure that we’re degrading China’s ability to conquer the future communications world with their ability to penetrate our information markets, especially our allied markets through 5g dominance, whether it’s Huawei or ZTE. I hope to also be on the Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. I think I could bring a lot of the experience that I’ve also gained from my subcommittee as well as other experiences on the House Armed Services Committee, dealing with the INDOPACOM area.

Also, I think there’s going to be this effort by a minority of the Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee to try to fight their cultural battles. It’ll be our goal to not just stop them, but refocus the committee to make sure that we’re paying attention to the right issues and funding the right programs, instead of spending time on these “woke” battles.

Q: How do you plan to approach or possibly counter the narratives coming out of these investigations by Republicans in reference to the Afghanistan withdrawal?

A: I think legitimate oversight about what happened in Afghanistan is important. But if they’re not going to look at this holistically about the decisions made prior to the withdrawal, like the decisions that were made under President Trump, then this is not a real investigation. This is just an investigation to score points. I will not be participating in that, and I will try to actually make sure that we are expanding this to make sure there’s true oversight.

I think we should be looking into what happened and how the decision-making process was made. It’s important that we do that. We have after-action reports in the military, we should have after-action reports on what happens with our military decisions. However, you cannot get a full scope of what happened unless we consider everything that went into the withdrawal.

Q: Do you worry over the future of major legislation following what we saw during the elections for Speaker, where far-right members were given positions or power and promised items by McCarthy in negotiations? For example, would there be concerns over the passage of further Ukraine military aid or the 2024 defense appropriations bill, since spending was such a major issue for those holdouts?

A: There’s going to be a minority that’s going to be holding Congress — and the American public — hostage altogether. The United States Congress is supportive of Ukraine armaments. We may differ on the amounts; I think we can always go back and do more assurances about how it’s being used.

Although, I truly believe that the weapons are being used correctly. We know that the Department of Defense is implementing checks on the weaponry, how it’s being used and where it is located. I’m fine with negotiating that. But I am worried that a small, pro-Russia sect of Republicans can hold up the appropriations for Ukraine, the 2024 NDAA or anything else that is important to our defense.

Q: After the Speaker vote, do you think that Speaker McCarthy will oppose more Ukraine military aid since he gave members opposed to such aid so much power in negotiations to become Speaker of the House, rather than come together with the larger bipartisan group of members who are supportive of the aid?

A: If McCarthy has to choose between the freedom of 44 million people and his ability to hold a gavel, he’s going to throw 44 million Ukrainians under the bus. I think that’s something that we have to be realistic about and try to work around, whether it’s to discharge petitions, or whatever other methods there are for us to continue funding Ukraine at appropriate levels for it to defend itself.

Zamone “Z” Perez is a rapid response reporter and podcast producer at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.

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