Senate Republicans fear President Trump is putting them into a political no-win situation by threatening to veto a popular defense policy bill over bipartisan language to rename military bases named after Confederate generals.
GOP lawmakers are trying to wave the president off his veto threat and may end up delaying the bill to avoid a political disaster before Election Day.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday urged Trump not to veto the $740.5 billion bill over a provision sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) mandating the secretary of Defense rename military installations named after Confederate generals.
“I would hope the president really wouldn’t veto the bill over this issue,” McConnell told Fox News. “I hope the president will reconsider vetoing the entire defense bill, which includes pay raises for our troops, over a provision in there that could lead to changing the names.”
With Trump and several Senate GOP incumbents down in the polls to Democratic opponents, Republican lawmakers are not looking forward to a racially-charged debate in Congress over preserving the memories of Confederate generals.
“We are now in an era of live grenades lying around. Nobody wants to jump on them,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).
A messy partisan fight over bases named after Confederate generals could also further drive away swing suburban voters, who are already dropping away from Trump according to recent polls.
Trump on Sunday tweeted and then deleted a video of a support at a retirement community in Florida chanting “white power,” further exacerbating the fears of GOP lawmakers that his style is too divisive.
If Trump doesn’t relent on the threatened veto, it’s likely Republicans will not let the defense policy bill go to the president’s desk before the Nov. 3 general election.
“It will probably be November by the time it would be coming to his desk anyway. A lot can happen between now and then,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told reporters Wednesday. He said “of course it would” be a mistake to veto the defense bill, and expressed hope the base-naming provision could somehow be removed from the bill, asserting “there’s lots of pathways” to do so.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a rising conservative star, for example, has an amendment to remove the mandate on the Defense secretary to change the base names.
But other Republicans, including Senate GOP Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), warn it will be extremely difficult to remove the base-naming language. Doing so on the Senate floor would require 60 votes, and the entire Democratic conference and several Republicans support the provision.
The prospects of taking it out in a Senate-House conference negotiation is also unlikely because the House is expected to add similar, if not stronger, language to its version of the bill.
That means the surest way to avoid a veto before Election Day is to keep the bill off Trump’s desk until after Nov. 3 — unless the president changes his mind.
Republicans view the defense bill, formally known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), as must-pass legislation. It has been passed annually for 59 consecutive years and is seen as a crucial benchmark of governance.
Republicans are leery about a battle with Democrats over preserving the legacies of Confederate generals at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice are dominating the national political conversation.
Three Republicans on the Armed Services Committee supported changing the names of military bases during the panel’s voice vote last month. The trio included two Republicans in tough re-election races, Sens. Martha McSally (Ariz.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), along with Sen. Mike Rounds (S.D.).
Other Republicans such as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also support changing base names.
“I would support changing the names of bases that were named in honor of Confederate generals. Those individuals fought against the United States of American and we should instead be honoring people who fought for the United States of America,” he told reporters Wednesday.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday dared Trump to give Democrats a big gift before the election.
“I dare President Trump to veto the bill over confederate base naming. It’s in the bill, it has bipartisan support, it will stay in the bill,” he said.
Democrats say that Trump would look completely out of step with changing sentiments on race if he vetoed the defense bill, especially after Mississippi Gov Tate Reeves (R) signed legislation this week to take down the Mississippi state flag, which has the Confederate battle flag embedded within it.
“I just think it would be a mistake. I think he’s out of sync with the opinion all across the country,” said Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. He noted that “the state of Mississippi is moving to change its flag” and NASCAR has banned the Confederate battle flag at races.
Other Republicans agree with McConnell that vetoing the massive defense bill would be a mistake.
“I plan on voting for the bill if that provision is in there or if it’s modified,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “I would hope the president wouldn’t veto it.
“It’s a bipartisan effort to arm our military and arm our defenses,” she said.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he has some concerns with the details of the Warren provision because it “mandates an outcome,” but told reporters that “I wouldn’t vote against the bill because of that provision.”
“Ultimately, I don’t think the name of a facility should be something that’s divisive or offensive to people especially if there are better alternatives to it,” he said. “But it has to be through a process, a considered process.”
The Warren amendment, which was adopted during a closed-door committee markup, would require military bases and other property commemorating the Confederate States of America to be renamed after an implementing commission reviews the issue for three years.
“I personally don’t have any problem with renaming bases. We have plenty of American military heroes that we can rename these things after,” Rubio said.
“The NDAA is so important and [has] so many important elements in it that I don’t believe that alone should be enough reason to either vote against it or veto it,” he added.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said “hopefully we can get by that.”
“We obviously need to pass NDAA. It needs to be signed into law,” he added.