Even a blunt veto threat from President Trump could not halt rising momentum on Capitol Hill Wednesday to strip the names of Confederate generals and officials from military bases around the country.
With both the House and Senate pushing to pass the massive annual defense policy bill in the coming days, even some of Mr. Trump’s most loyal Republican allies were betting — or hoping — the hot-button Confederate base renaming issue would not result in a presidential veto.
Mr. Trump’s threat largely fell flat among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who felt the president is unlikely to ultimately act on his comments once Congress agrees to the language of the $740.5 billion defense legislation.
“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,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, told Fox News.
Lawmakers were working into the night on the bill, which sets spending targets for the Pentagon but also weighs in on a slew of defense issues, from military pay rates and racism in the ranks to veterans health care and Mr. Trump’s plan to slice the American troop presence in Germany by nearly a third.
In the wake of nationwide protests over racial justice in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while being arrested by Minneapolis police, the question of whether to change the names of bases such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas was suddenly thrust in the spotlight.
Last month, a Republican-majority Senate panel approved an amendment by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would require the Pentagon to change the name of military bases and other assets named after Confederate Civil War figures within three years.
Democrats now hope to speed up the process, while Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, was pushing an amendment to drop the drive to change the names.
While Pentagon leaders say they are open to a debate on whether to rename the bases, Mr. Trump doubled down this week on his opposition to even considering the idea.
He said on Twitter Ms. Warren’s amendment “will lead to the renaming (plus other bad things!) of Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, and many other Military Bases from which we won Two World Wars.”
But Republicans and Democrats alike on Wednesday shrugged off the president’s threat to reject the defense budget over the issue.
“He’s not going to veto it,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, told reporters. His panel holds the responsibility of drafting the early versions of the defense policy bill.
“It will probably be November by the time it would be coming to his desk anyway, so a lot can happen between now and then, and one thing that isn’t going to happen is a veto,” Mr. Inhofe said.
Mr. McConnell’s Democratic counterpart, New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, issued a similar prediction that “President Trump will not veto a bill that contains pay raises for our troops and crucial support for our military.”
“This is nothing but the typical bluster from President Trump,” the New York Democrat continued.
Scrubbing the rebels
Ms. Warren’s amendment, which has seen support from a handful of Republicans in both chambers, would mandate the renaming of at least 10 military installations, including Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia and Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
It would also require military leaders make certain that the Confederacy is not honored in any form across the services.
But an intra-Republican battle over the issue is brewing after Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri introduced an amendment aimed at blocking Ms. Warren’s effort and instead proposed creating a commission to hold public hearings, gather input from military families and veterans, and work with state and local communities to recommend a way forward.
“The reality though is that this was never about the Confederacy,” Mr. Hawley said in a statement. “The events of the last few weeks, where rioters have attacked American and religious landmarks, tell us otherwise. … And the mob will keep marching through all our cultural institutions until every American whom the woke crowd deems unjust is cancelled.”
At least six Republican senators say they support Mr. Hawley’s bill, including Sens. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Ted Cruz of Texas, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Rick Scott of Florida, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
The mandate would have to receive at least 60 votes in the Senate to be included in its draft of the bill, and would have to be approved by the Democratic House majority to make it into the final version — an outcome few see as likely.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, said earlier this week that “there’s clearly strong support within the committee, and there are Republicans who support it as well, to make these name changes in a comprehensive way.
He told The Washington Times that he predicts his panel will approve “a very strong provision to require the renaming of those bases probably within a year.” Within 24 hours, his panel approved language for its version of the bill without objection that would “prohibit the public display of the Confederate battle flag at all Department of Defense property” by October 1 of next year.
The bipartisan amendment, introduced by Iraq War veteran Rep. Anthony Brown, Maryland Democrat, and Rep. Don Bacon, Nebraska Republican, allows exceptions for Confederate displays in museums, state license plates, and gravesites of confederate soldiers.
The House committee Wednesday evening rejected a counter amendment, introduced by Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the panel’s ranking Republican, by a 33-23 margin that would have loosened the requirements and extended the timeline for changing the names of Pentagon property.
“There will be Republican support for [the existing amendment.] How much? I don’t know,” Mr. Smith said, adding that the one-year timeline may be too ambitious among conservatives.
“I do know that there’s Republican sympathy for doing this, and there’s a desire on their part to be able to vote in favor of it.”