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Cotton emerges as key figure in base renaming fight

Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonTrump: LeBron James's 'racist rants' are divisive, nasty On police and race, LeBron James becomes part of the problem Hawley votes against anti-Asian hate crime bill MORE (R-Ark.), whose op-ed in The New York Times earlier this month led to charges that he was putting African Americans in danger with his rhetoric, has suddenly emerged as a moderating voice on the topics of police reform and renaming military bases named after Confederate generals.

Cotton on Tuesday — just two days after the Times’s editorial page editor resigned over the op-ed — stood up in a Senate Republican lunch to caution colleagues that they need to proceed carefully on police reform and be sensitive to the life experiences of young black men.   

He warned colleagues that “young black men have a very different experience with law enforcement in this nation than white people and that’s their impression and experience and we need to be sensitive to that and do all we can to change it,” according to Politico, which first reported the comments.

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Cotton then played a central role in modifying an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to set up a process to rename military installations named after Confederate generals such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana, according to Senate sources.

Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, drew a line between the op-ed and Cotton’s subsequent actions.

“The op-ed was toxic at the time that it came out because it called for the president to bring the military in to police American cities and that would have been highly inflammatory,” West said.

“It’s good that he’s reaching out to others. He understands he needs to mend some bridges. I think people had a very negative reaction to what he did and so he has to demonstrate that he understands the racial aspects of what he said.”

Caroline Tabler, a spokeswoman for Cotton, said there was no connection between the New York Times op-ed controversy and the senator’s recent actions.

“I don’t think there’s a change in his tone,” she said. “You can be for law and order and you can also admit the police need reform. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

In the op-ed published on June 3 with the headline "Send in the Troops," Cotton, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the U.S. Army, called for federal troops to be sent to cities through the Insurrection Act.

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“He still very much believes what he wrote in the op-ed, especially about the Insurrection Act and he very much believes what he said at lunch,” Tabler added.

She said his work on the Defense bill was also “separate.” 

Cotton worked to change an amendment offered by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden plan would nearly double capital gains tax for wealthy: report Top general concerned about Afghan forces after US troops leave Progressives divided over efforts to repeal SALT cap MORE (D-Mass.) in ways that made other Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee feel more comfortable about letting it eventually pass by voice vote during a closed-door markup of the legislation.

The move sets up a clash between Congress and President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: LeBron James's 'racist rants' are divisive, nasty North Carolina man accused of fraudulently obtaining .5M in PPP loans Biden announces picks to lead oceans, lands agencies MORE, who has come out strongly against changing the names of military bases.

“My administration will not even consider the renaming of these magnificent and fabled military installations,” Trump declared on Twitter.  

Cotton moved to change the amendment after Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyArizona state senator announces bid for Kirkpatrick's seat Democratic Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick says she won't seek reelection Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (R-Ariz.), a member of the Armed Services panel, who faces a very tough road to reelection, signaled to colleagues that she would vote for it, according to a senior congressional aide.

With Republicans controlling 14 seats and Democrats controlling 13 seats on the panel, McSally’s defection would have let Warren’s amendment passed.

Warren’s amendment as first proposed set only a one-year timeline for renaming military bases named after Confederate generals, according to sources familiar with the deliberations.

Cotton countered by proposing the establishment of a commission to study proposed name changes for military bases.

Warren accepted the idea but only to a degree.

She agreed to having an implementing commission but in the final version of her amendment, the commission would not merely report back to Congress its recommendations, as such commissions usually do. Instead, her revamped amendment calls for the commission to submit a plan to “remove all names, symbols, displays, monuments … that honor or commemorate the Confederate States of America” that “shall” be implemented by the secretary of Defense.

Cotton wasn’t able to get other changes he wanted.

For example, Warren turned down his last-minute request that her amendment exempt memorials from being renamed, which Warren saw as a loophole that could be stretched to protect monuments to Confederate military leaders.

But the junior senator from Arkansans was able to get Warren and Democrats to agree to exempt military grave markers from changes, which helped build bipartisan support.

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Sens. Mike RoundsMike RoundsSenate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban Senate confirms SEC chief Gensler to full five-year term Congress looks to rein in Biden's war powers MORE (R-S.D.) and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstLobbying world 15 Senate Republicans pledge to oppose lifting earmark ban Child care advocates seek to lock down billion in new federal funding MORE (R-Iowa), were two members of the Armed Services Committee who told reporters they supported the amendment to change base names.

Cotton spoke up during the closed-door committee process to say he still had serious reservations with Warren’s amendment because it didn’t also exempt memorials.

The modified amendment was adopted by voice vote, which means it wasn’t clear to all colleagues who backed the amendment. A person in the room who was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting said, however, that Cotton’s “no” by voice vote was “audible.”

Cotton himself declined to comment on the vote when asked by The Hill.

While Cotton proposed changes to the amendment, its language was negotiated and written by majority and minority committee staff, according to sources familiar with the process.

Some Democrats on the committee saw Cotton’s willingness to deal on the issue — which he might have been expected to shut down altogether — as evidence “the world has changed,” in the words of one Democratic senator, when it comes to the charged debate over how to handle the history of slavery and the Civil War.  

Cotton’s GOP colleagues on the Armed Services Committee weren’t fully aware of the role he played in shaping the contour of the debate. But some said they were happy in produced a result instead of a partisan deadlock.

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One GOP senator said Warren’s amendment as originally written was a “very, very constraining amendment that would require everything to be changed — no ifs, ands or buts within one year.”

The lawmaker added that if Cotton “was the one [who] was working to Elizabeth on that, kudos to him.”

“I think it gave everybody a sense of relief that we would take a very measured approach at this,” the lawmaker added.

Cotton, 43, is seen as a senator with presidential ambitions, and his handling of the military base renaming debate sets up a comparison with Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyHawley votes against anti-Asian hate crime bill Senate passes anti-Asian hate crimes bill On The Money: Senate GOP faces post-Trump spending brawl | Senate confirms SEC chief Gensler to full five-year term | Left-leaning group raises concerns about SALT cap repeal MORE (R-Mo.), another conservative seen as a future White House candidate.

Hawley clearly proclaimed his opposition to the Warren amendment Thursday, allying himself strongly with Trump on the issue.

“I oppose the amendment, I voted no on it, and I spoke against it in the committee and voiced my reservations for it,” Hawley tweeted. “I just don’t think that Congress mandating that these be renamed and attempting to erase that part of our history is a way that you deal with that history.”

Hawley announced on the Senate floor Thursday he would introduce legislation to stop the mandate to change the names of military institutions, which he called “historical revisionism.”

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“I will offer it not to celebrate the cause of the Confederacy but to embrace the cause of union, our union,” he said. “It is time for our leaders to stop using their position here to divide us.”

Warren’s office said Friday that neither Warren and Cotton nor their staffs spoke directly about modifying Warren’s amendment prior to Wednesday's markup.

The negotiation was conducted through the staffs of Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTop general concerned about Afghan forces after US troops leave Harris casts tiebreaking vote to advance Biden nominee The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - US vaccine effort takes hit with Johnson & Johnson pause MORE (R-Okla.) and Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedTop general: Somalia withdrawal made counterterrorism missions riskier Harris casts tiebreaking vote to advance Biden nominee Five questions about Biden withdrawal from Afghanistan MORE (D-R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, sources said.

Inhofe later told reporters he was not happy with the outcome of the amendment debate.

He said Thursday the “shall” language instructing the secretary of Defense to change base names should be changed to “may” and that state and local authorities should have say over whether bases should be renamed.