House passes defense policy bill that Trump threatened to veto

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The House approved its annual defense policy bill in a 295-125 vote on Tuesday, taking a step toward confrontation with President Trump over stripping Confederate names from military bases. 

The fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was approved with a veto-proof majority, though it is possible that some of the 108 Republicans who voted for the legislation could change their votes to back up a presidential veto.

The 125 “no” votes included 43 Democrats.
The massive $740.5 billion defense bill covers everything from authorizing a 3 percent pay raise for troops to establishing a $3.6 billion fund to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region to setting aside $1 billion to help the Pentagon with pandemic preparedness amid the coronavirus crisis.

But the marquee fight this year is over language that would require the Pentagon to rename bases and other military properties that are named after Confederate military officers.

The version of the NDAA approved Tuesday would require the names to be changed in one year. 

As the country reckons with its legacy of slavery amid nationwide protests over racial injustices, attention has turned to removing statues, monuments and other tributes to the Confederacy from public spaces. In the military, the most high-profile examples are 10 Army bases named after Confederate generals and a colonel.

The Army said it was open to renaming the bases before Trump publicly shut down the effort. 

Now, Trump is threatening to veto the NDAA if the version that makes it to his desk requires the bases to be renamed. In a Fox News interview that aired Sunday, Trump said he “might” veto the bill after tweeting last month that he “will” veto it if the renaming requirement stays in.

An official White House statement of administration policy released Tuesday also threatened to veto the bill.

Republicans have urged Trump to back off the threats and have even raised the possibility of a veto override.

In a sign of the gap between Trump and Republicans on the issue, no House Republican filed an amendment to remove the language from the bill, and the issue was not raised on the House floor during debate Monday and Tuesday.

Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee did mostly vote against the provision when the panel considered the bill but backed an alternative proposal to rename the bases in two years and to give local communities more say in the process.

A group of Senate Republicans led by Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) has tried to water down the upper chamber’s version of the NDAA by turning the requirement to rename bases into a study. But the Senate has not set up a vote on Hawley’s amendment.

As it stands now, the Senate’s version of the NDAA, which the chamber is expected to pass later this week, would require bases and other property be renamed in three years.

The House and Senate must reconcile their versions of the bill before sending it to Trump’s desk, but with both bills including a renaming requirement, it is unlikely to be removed. Negotiations are not expected to finish before the November elections. 

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said at a briefing Tuesday the department is “confident” Congress and the White House will reach an agreement and the bill will be signed. He would not specify Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s position on the bills as they are now, saying the issue is in the “legislative realm.” 

Presidents often threaten to veto the NDAA without following through. Former President Obama threatened to veto it every year of his tenure but only did so once and later signed a revised version of that year’s NDAA.

The House version of the NDAA would also ban the display of the Confederate battle flag on all Defense Department property. Esper effectively banned the flag last week, but his memo did not specifically call out the Confederate banner.

Also in response to this summer’s protests, the House on Monday approved an NDAA amendment aimed at curtailing the president’s powers under the Insurrection Act. Trump threatened to invoke the law last month in order to deploy active-duty troops against protesters.

In another issue the two chambers will need to reconcile, the House also approved Monday an amendment to prohibit funding from being used “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.” The Senate’s version of the NDAA, by contrast, would make at least $10 million available to “carry out projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary.” 

The bill also includes provisions aimed at putting up roadblocks against Trump’s planned troop drawdowns in Germany and Afghanistan as well as limits on emergency use of military construction funding aimed at preventing Trump from dipping into Pentagon coffers for his border wall.

Meanwhile, the House rejected Tuesday a progressive bid to cut the defense budget by 10 percent. The amendment, sponsored by Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), failed 93-324. 

The amendment’s failure led to progressives voting against the bill Tuesday. But with Republicans supporting this year’s NDAA, House Democrats were able to pass the bill without progressive support.

The dynamic marked a turnaround from last year, when the House loaded its initial version of the NDAA with progressive priorities, prompting Republicans to oppose the defense bill until most of the progressive provisions were taken out in negotiations with the Senate.

Tags Donald Trump Josh Hawley Mark Esper Mark Pocan

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