Congress moves forward in face of Trump veto threat to remove Confederate names from bases

The Senate overwhelmingly passed the National Defense Authorization Act Thursday, 86-14, one day after the House passed its defense authorization bill 295-125. Both chambers cleared the two-thirds threshold for a veto-proof majority on the legislation that sets policy for the military and has been signed into law 59 straight years.

The two versions of the defense authorization bill each contained a requirement that the military rename installations that are named after Confederate military leaders. While the provisions in the House and Senate bills are different — and will have to be reconciled — the inclusion in both bills makes it likely it will be part of the final version of the must-pass defense legislation Congress sends to Trump’s desk later this year.

The provisions requiring the names of the bases to be changed — the Senate’s bill gives the Pentagon three years, while the House requires the task be completed within one year — are another sign of the political shift that’s followed nationwide protests of police brutality and racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

They’re also an example where Trump’s popularity with Republicans isn’t always enough to get the congressional GOP to rally behind him — especially in an election year with a popular must-pass bill that authorizes funding for the military and includes a pay raise for troops. On Wednesday, the House voted 305-113 to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol, with 72 House Republicans joining Democrats in favor.

Trump has drawn a line in the sand against changing bases named for Confederate leaders like Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Lee in Virginia since Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper signaled they were open to the idea last month.

Trump threatened to veto the defense legislation on Twitter and in interviews over the renaming of bases, and that section of the bill was the first item listed in the White House’s formal veto threat of the House legislation.
Pentagon drafting ban on displaying Confederate flag at bases

“We won two World Wars, two World Wars, beautiful World Wars that were vicious and horrible, and we won them out of Fort Bragg, we won out of all of these forts that now they want to throw those names away,” Trump said in an interview Sunday with Fox News’ Chris Wallace.

Asked about the military’s support for the name changes, Trump said: “I don’t care what the military says.”

While some Republicans agree with Trump, congressional GOP leaders have not taken steps to try to remove the language from the defense bills. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he supports renaming bases.

“I don’t have any problem with changing the bases in the south that I didn’t even realize were named after Confederate generals. I don’t have any problem with that,” McConnell said in an interview with Kentucky television station WDRB earlier this month. “The bill that we’re about to pass in the Senate sets up a period to study removing those names and replacing them with people who didn’t rebel against the country.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, added the provision to the Senate’s defense authorization bill through an amendment during the panel’s closed-door debate on the measure. Her proposal, which divided Republicans on the committee, calls for the removal of names of Confederate leaders from all military assets — whether it’s a base, installation, facility, aircraft, ship, plane or type of equipment — within three years. It passed by voice vote.

Some Republicans sought to water down the provision on the Senate floor. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, offered an amendment that would have replaced the requirement with a commission to hold public hearings and provide recommendations after consulting with local communities, but it was not given a vote in the Senate.

“Here today, on the floor of the US Senate, I have been told that we cannot even have a vote. We can’t even call the roll on this,” Hawley said on the Senate floor earlier this month. “No, we just have to swallow it and move on as the woke cancel culture moves on, steamrolling our history and our traditions, and, yes, our best traditions as Americans.”

In the House, Democratic Rep. Anthony Brown of Maryland teamed up with GOP Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska to offer the provision requiring the names of military installations be changed after one year. A Republican substitute proposal to have the military first study the issue was defeated, and the amendment was added to the House’s bill.

Now that the legislation has passed both chambers, the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee will hammer out the final version of the bill, which both chambers will then pass again.

Top US general says Confederate leaders committed 'treason' and signals support for renaming bases

That process is often the place where controversial measures approved by either the House or Senate are weakened or removed from the bill altogether — but the fact that the requirement to rename the installations is in both bills means it’s unlikely to be removed.

Of course, it’s possible that a compromise could be reached that will satisfy the White House and congressional leaders. Facing calls to ban the Confederate flag from military installations, the Pentagon instead released a list flags permitted to be displayed — acting as a de facto ban of the Confederate flag.

“We have confidence that at the end of the day, the President and Congress will reach an agreement,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters on Wednesday when asked about Trump’s veto threat over renaming bases.

The timing for the House-Senate conference committee negotiations is fluid: If things move quickly a final version of the bill could be ready in September, but it could also slip until after the election in November.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, has said he’s opposed to the provision in the Senate’s bill that would rename military installations. But he has downplayed Trump’s veto threat, saying there’s a long way before the legislation actually gets to Trump’s desk.

“He wouldn’t veto something until it reaches his desk,” Inhofe told reporters earlier this month. “That probably is going to be sometime around November, so we have until now and November to make sure we overcome the reason for his veto.”

CNN’s Ted Barrett and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.

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