Defense bill moves to formal negotiations with Confederate name fight looming

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The House on Wednesday voted to formally enter into negotiations with the Senate over a massive defense policy bill that would require Confederate names to be stripped from military bases and other Pentagon property.

The unanimous consent vote to go to conference on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) sets up the endgame on a bill that President Trump has threatened to veto.

The Senate is expected to soon follow suit on voting to start negotiations. Though talks won’t be considered official until the Senate votes, lawmakers tasked with negotiating the bill already held their ceremonial first meeting Wednesday morning.

“While this work is difficult, it is of the utmost importance that we show the American people that Congress is still capable of achieving compromise to fulfill our duty to provide for the common defense,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a statement after what’s known as the “pass the gavel” meeting.

The thorniest issue is expected to be a requirement that the Pentagon change the names of military bases and other property that are named after Confederate leaders. The House bill would require the change in one year, while the Senate bill mandates it in three.

The requirement has elicited a veto threat from Trump.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has vowed to remove the requirement. But it is highly unusual for something that’s in both bills to be removed from the final version, and Inhofe has not explained how he expects to overcome bipartisan support for changing the names.

Democrats have also signaled they will not budge on the issue.

In a statement officially naming House Democrats’s negotiators, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it’s “imperative” the the final bill mandates the name changes.

“Our bases should reflect our highest ideals as Americans,” she said.

Formal negotiations over the NDAA were stalled amid the 2020 elections, though staffers from the House and Senate Armed Services committees have held informal talks since both chambers passed their versions of the bill in July. The so-called “Big Four” — both parties’ leaders from both committees — have also had informal talks.

Waiting until after the election was supposed to relieve some political pressure on negotiations, but control of the Senate is still up in the air pending the outcome of two runoff elections in Georgia in January.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee who is retiring from Congress at the end of the year, expressed concern Tuesday that the Georgia runoffs could complicate negotiations.

But Thornberry also suggested that Democrat Joe Biden winning the presidential election should mean less pressure to keep the Confederate bases issue in the bill.

“I am concerned that, especially with the Georgia runoffs, that political considerations on really an issue that doesn’t significantly affect the ability of the country to defend itself could take precedence over all of the things that do affect the ability of the country to protect itself,” Thornberry said. “And, just to say what everybody knows, the incoming Biden administration is going to deal with the base naming issues anyway.”

While renaming Confederate-named bases has garnered the most attention from this year’s NDAA, the bill touches on several other hot-button issues.

The House version of the bill contains a provision seeking to constrain Trump’s ability to withdraw from Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced a plan to draw down 2,500 troops there before Trump leaves office, a plan panned by lawmakers in both parties.

The House bill would also put up roadblocks for Trump’s plan to slash the number of U.S. troops in Germany.

The Senate bill includes $10 million to prepare to conduct a nuclear test if necessary, while the House bill would prohibit funding from being used to prepare for nuclear tests.

Updated at 8:23 p.m.

Tags Adam Smith Confederate base names Defense bill Donald Trump Joe Biden Mac Thornberry military budget Nancy Pelosi NDAA

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