House approves defense policy bill despite Trump veto threat

The House easily approved the annual defense policy bill Tuesday, defying President Trump’s repeated veto threats.

The bill was approved in a 335-78 vote. That’s above the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto, but some Republicans could switch their vote if it comes to overriding the president.

Overall, 140 Republicans voted “yes” and 37 Democrats voted “no” on Tuesday, with Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.) voting present.

The bipartisan approval of the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will leave supporters hoping the support is strong enough to dissuade Trump from following through with his veto threat.

But Trump has so far not backed down from the fight as some of his staunchest allies in Congress cheer him on. And even though many Republicans voted for the bill Tuesday, it’s unclear if they would vote against Trump after a veto and hand him the first override of his presidency.

The NDAA, which has become law 59 years in a row, is considered must-pass because it authorizes dozens of special pay and bonuses for service members as well as military construction projects and training programs.

“This bipartisan policy bill has been signed into law for 59 consecutive years. Let’s urge the president to show respect to the work of the bicameral, bipartisan Congress and for the sacrifice of our military,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Tuesday ahead of the vote.

Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA over two separate issues.

First, the bill would require the Pentagon to rename within three years Confederate-named military bases and other property and set up a commission to plan how to carry out those changes.

Trump argues that changing the names “desecrates” the bases, but lawmakers in both parties see the change as past due as the military and the nation grapple with racism and the legacy of slavery.

The president is also threatening to veto the bill because it does not include a repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that gives online platforms liability protection for content posted by third parties while allowing them to make good faith content moderation efforts.

Trump, who became fixated on Section 230 after Twitter started adding corrective labels to his unsubstantiated posts alleging widespread voter fraud, demanded late in the negotiations that Congress add a repeal of the decades-old statute to the NDAA. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle argue the NDAA is not the place to address a tech issue that has little if anything to do with national security.

In addition to the two main issues provoking the veto threat, the NDAA rebukes Trump in several areas.

It would block troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Germany until the Pentagon assesses the effect of any drawdown, require sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of a Russian missile defense system and put an annual cap on emergency military construction funding after Trump used billions to build his border wall, among other breaks with the White House.

Ahead of the vote, Trump upped pressure on Republicans to oppose the bill.

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

The White House also issued a formal statement of administration policy Tuesday afternoon saying Trump’s “advisors would recommend he veto” the bill because it “fails to include critical national security measures, includes provisions that fail to respect our veterans and our military’s history, and contradicts efforts by this administration to put America first in our national security and foreign policy actions.”

After Trump’s tweet, the conservative House Freedom Caucus announced its opposition to the bill, though many of its prominent members had already voted against the initial House version in July.

“We stand with the president, and we stood with him over the last four years rebuilding the military, and we continue to stand with him as he desires to do so. This particular NDAA bill, however, is filled with flaws and problems,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also said Tuesday that he would not vote to override a veto.

“I don’t believe Republicans, in our work with the president always, that you vote to override a veto,” McCarthy, who voted for the bill Tuesday, told reporters. Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), meanwhile, opposed the measure. 

In a sign Trump’s veto threat may have backfired, fewer Republicans voted against the bill Tuesday than in July. At the time, 81 House Republicans opposed the bill, compared to 40 on Tuesday.

The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee had encouraged his colleagues to stand by the bill, correctly predicting a stronger Republican vote for the compromise bill than the House’s initial version in July.

“All members have to bear the consequences of a ‘no’ vote,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters Monday. “And one of the consequences is that military pay is going to go down, that we are going to forgo a lot of important bipartisan steps to better compete with the threat from China.”

House and Senate Armed Services leaders on both sides of the aisle have also communicated to the White House about the possibility of an override, Thornberry said.

Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican, told reporters that “we’ve got to pass the NDAA, and the president should not veto it. And we should override.”

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Republicans are similarly hoping a strong vote dissuades Trump from issuing a veto.

But in the upper chamber, too, some staunch Trump allies are encouraging him to continue the fight, including GOP Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.).

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, said Monday he expects a “big” vote this week but demurred when asked if they’ll have the votes to override a veto.

Another issue with overriding a veto is the calendar. The House and Senate are slated to leave town next week until January if they pass a government funding bill, and lawmakers would have to start from scratch on the bill if it doesn’t become law before the new Congress is sworn in early next month.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) both told reporters Monday that Congress would return to town if Trump vetoes the NDAA.

Tags Adam Smith Confederate base names Donald Trump Eliot Engel John Thune Josh Hawley Kevin McCarthy Lindsey Graham Liz Cheney Mac Thornberry Nancy Pelosi National Defense Authorization Act NDAA Section 230 Steny Hoyer Steve Scalise Trump veto trump veto threat

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