Politics

Trump set on veto of defense bill over renaming bases honoring Confederates

Carol E. Lee, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Courtney Kube
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U.S. President Donald Trump delivers an update on the so-called Operation Warp Speed program, the joint Defense Department and HHS initiative that has struck deals with several drugmakers in an effort to help speed up the search for effective treatments for the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in an address from the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, November 13, 2020.
Carlos Barria | Reuters

President Donald Trump is threatening to veto legislation to fund the military as one of his final acts in office unless a widely supported, bipartisan provision to rename military bases honoring Confederate military leaders is removed, according to White House, defense and congressional sources.

Since the Nov. 3 election, Trump has privately told Republican lawmakers that he won't back down from his position during the campaign that he would veto the annual National Defense Authorization Act if it includes an amendment to rename the bases.

A senior administration official confirmed Trump's conversations with Republicans and his veto threat. "He's said that," the official said.

Trump's stance has put in doubt legislation that had been agreed to by Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate. It has sent members of Trump's party scrambling to find a path for the defense bill, which outlines military policy and funding, and put them on a collision course with Democrats.

While some Republicans are now shifting their positions to align with Trump, Democrats are refusing to budge on the agreed-to amendment, threatening passage of the legislation.

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The effort to change the names of military bases honoring Confederate military leaders has been a target for Trump for months. It was among the disagreements he had with his former defense secretary Mark Esper, who was quietly working with Congress to codify the renaming of bases in the bill before Trump fired him this month.

The pressure from Trump has increased as members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees have begun formal negotiations to work out the differences in the legislative bodies' respective bills.

Both chambers overwhelmingly passed a provision that would change the names of Confederate-named bases as part of their defense bills.

But the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe, R-Okla., indicated that he's gotten the message from Trump, and he called it a "big issue" of contention in negotiations with Democrats.

"Only the president can say whether or not there's any room for a negotiation," Inhofe said, adding that he doubts that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would put legislation up for a vote on the floor "that has a veto on it."

Democrats are balking, saying Republicans are buckling under pressure from a lame-duck president. Three dozen Senate Democrats wrote a letter urging that the provision remain.

Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledged that the issue has become a central sticking point.

"It passed overwhelming in the Senate," Reed said. "My position is it has to be maintained."

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who is leading negotiations with Republicans, said the issue could derail the whole bill, which has passed every year for 59 straight years, a rarity in a polarized Congress.

"It's a simple thing, and it's getting in the way of a lot of very important stuff, you know, over something that we all ought to support, and most of us do," Smith said.

The legislation sets defense priorities for the coming year, but it also includes a pay raise for troops and funding for female-specific uniforms and body armor, which doesn't yet exist. And it provides funding to support quality of life for service members and their families, including measures this year to support education for military children with special needs whose families have to frequently change school districts.

In July, Trump tweeted that he would veto the measure if it includes an amendment that renames bases. "I will Veto the Defense Authorization Bill if the Elizabeth 'Pocahantas' Warren (of all people!) Amendment which will lead to the renaming (plus other bad things!) of Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, and many other Military Bases from which we won Two World Wars, is in the Bill!" he wrote.

A congressional aide said that Trump's feelings haven't changed and that the reality is that the next administration would probably change the names even if the language isn't included in the defense bill. "Why put a large, important bill at risk for something that will come to pass anyway?" the aide asked.

After his inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden, who released a statement supporting the name changes in June, could issue an executive order to change the names, and the changes would likely be implemented faster than any legislation could implement them, a defense official said.

Biden wrote: "The names affixed to our military installations must honor the diverse heritage of leadership and sacrifice in our country's history. I fully support Senator Warren's bipartisan effort to form a commission to rename Defense Department facilities named after Confederate leaders in the next three years, and look forward to implementing the commission's work as president."

The Biden transition team declined to comment on whether he would sign an executive order renaming the bases.

If Trump vetoes the bill and a new version isn't passed and signed before the 116th Congress adjourns Jan. 3, the next Congress will have to start from scratch.