GOP hopes for escape hatch from showdown with Trump

Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are urging President Trump to back off a threat to veto a mammoth defense bill as they look for an off-ramp from an intraparty brawl at the end of the Trump presidency.

The fight over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the latest foreign policy scuffle between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, is putting Republicans in a high-profile standoff with a president they’ve stuck closely to over the last four years on a bill that typically passes with overwhelming support. 

But Senate Republicans are hoping for an escape hatch even as Trump is doubling down and a growing number of House Republicans are signaling they won’t break with the president — a move that could put the defense bill in jeopardy. 

“It may be that the handwriting is on the wall,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who is planning to vote for the bill when it comes to the Senate floor, asked if a big vote could help sway the president. 

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) pointed to the defense policy bill as low-hanging fruit for Washington. He declined to say if Republicans would have the votes to override — predicting they would “cross that bridge if we get to it” — but hoped Trump would come around.

“We’ve made it very clear that national security, defense is the No. 1 thing we do around here. If you can’t get that right, the rest is conversation. … It has been negotiated for a long time, and hopefully he’ll sign it,” he said. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) threw his support behind the defense bill on Tuesday but declined to say how he would handle a veto from Trump.

“We haven’t failed to pass the NDAA for 60 years. If it comes over from the House, obviously I’m going to put it on the floor and it’s my intention to vote for it,” McConnell said. 

Asked what he would do if it is vetoed, McConnell added, “we don’t know for sure whether the bill will be vetoed or not.” 

The fight over the defense bill could come to a head in a matter of days. The House overwhelmingly approved the bill on Tuesday and the Senate is expected to pass the legislation as soon as this week, sending it to Trump’s desk, where he’ll need to make a decision about the veto. 

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said he would “probably” vote to override a veto but questioned if override threats might inadvertently push Trump toward one. 

“I’ve been thinking about whether that would be helpful or not,” Cramer said, asked if he would reach out to the White House. “You have to be in a good place, and you want it to be the right time.” 

Asked about the potential that public pushback could make a veto more likely, Cramer added: “That’s what I mean by how you approach it.” 

Members of GOP leadership hinted that backchanneling was taking place to try to convince Trump not to veto the NDAA. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, said that he will vote to override a veto.

Pressed on outreach to the White House, Blunt pointed back to McConnell’s comments, adding, “I assume that effort is being made.”

Thune, asked about talking to the White House, said talks were already underway and the president is aware of the support of the bill in the Senate.

“I think some of those conversations have already been had. And I think there will probably be more,” Thune said. “Ideally it would be nice if the president would find his way to sign the bill.”

Other Republicans are being cagier on the prospect of a veto override. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who previously predicted that Congress would override a veto, said he would vote for the bill but that he didn’t want to talk about an override.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.) an adviser to McConnell, said he wants Trump to sign the bill. But pressed on supporting a veto override, he said, “When he vetoes it, I’ll tell you.”

The defense bill has passed Congress for 59 years in a row, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle viewing it as a must-pass piece of legislation. The mammoth proposal lays out broad policy for the Pentagon and greenlights the separate spending bills. 

Trump threatened to veto the bill earlier this year over language that would force the changing of Confederate-named bases. Though senators thought he had backed down from that issue, the administration mentioned it in a statement against the bill along with Trump’s more recent threat of vetoing the bill because it does not include a repeal of Section 230, a legal shield for tech companies.

“I hope House Republicans will vote against the very weak National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which I will VETO,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. 

It’s the latest national security fight between Trump and congressional Republicans, who have also battled over Russian sanctions, former Defense Secretary James Mattis’s exit, troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Syria and frustration with the recent ousting of Mattis’s successor, Mark Esper.

But the fight over the NDAA could test Trump’s grip on Republicans in Congress.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters that he would not vote for a veto override. 

“I don’t believe Republicans, in our work with the president always, that you vote to override a veto,” McCarthy told reporters. 

And the House Freedom Caucus — where many members already opposed the House bill earlier this year — held a press conference on Tuesday to say the group would vote against the compromise this week. 

Others are making it clear they will vote to override Trump’s veto. 

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican, told reporters that she is supporting the bill and believes Congress should override a veto. 

“We’ve got to pass the NDAA and the president should not veto it. And we should override,” she said. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) spoke with Trump this week and appears convinced that the president will veto the bill. 

“He said he’s going to veto it,” Inhofe said. “He knows where I am. Publicly I’m telling everybody … attempt to override a veto.” 

Asked what the purpose of their call was, given their opposing positions, Inhofe added: “I’m not real sure. I know where he is. He knows where I am.”

Tags Chuck Grassley Donald Trump James Inhofe James Mattis John Cornyn John Thune Kevin Cramer Kevin McCarthy Liz Cheney Mark Esper Mitch McConnell ndaa president donald trump john thune veto senate republicans vote showdown pass Roy Blunt Shelley Moore Capito

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