The Senate provision, sponsored by progressive Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, was adopted by the Armed Services Committee by voice vote. The faster House provision was sponsored by Democrat Anthony Brown of Maryland and Republican Don Bacon of Nebraska.
President Donald Trump has promised to veto defense legislation that would strip the names, equating doing so to rewriting U.S. history. Senate Armed Services Chair Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), an ally of Trump’s, is also pushing to strip the provision from a compromise bill.
Smith predicted Senate Republicans, led by Inhofe and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, wouldn’t approve a bill that Trump would veto. He chided GOP leaders for giving Trump cover on the issue and holding up the bill.
“I mean, my God, if Mississippi can take down the Confederate flag, off of the [state] flag, then I think the United States Congress can agree that we shouldn’t be naming military bases after people who rose up in armed rebellion against the United States,” Smith said.
“It’s not a hard thing to do,” he said. “For some reason, the Senate Republican leadership has not found a way to do it. So we are where we are.”
House and Senate Armed Services leaders want their defense bill ready for a final vote in early December. Other issues, such as troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Europe, have split lawmakers and drawn White House opposition.
A bridge marks the entrance to the U.S. Army’s Fort Benning as the sun rises in Columbus, Ga. Fort Benning is named after Confederate officers. | AP Photo/Branden Camp
Both the House and Senate passed their bills this summer with large enough majorities to overcome a veto by Trump, but it’s unclear if that bipartisan coalition would hold if the commander in chief followed through on his threat.
The debate comes at a precarious time for Republicans. The Senate GOP majority hinges on two January runoff elections in Georgia. Trump has refused to acknowledge his loss to President-elect Joe Biden — instead waging a battle to overturn the results — and the bulk of Republicans have yet to recognize the Democrat as the winner.
Democrats, meanwhile, have lined up behind the effort to rename the bases. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hinted this week that the issue could be a red line for Democrats.
“It is imperative that the conference report include provisions that secure this essential priority,” Pelosi said Wednesday in a statement naming negotiators for the defense bill. “Our bases should reflect our highest ideals as Americans.”
That impasse could be overcome, administration officials have signaled, yet at a hefty cost Democrats appear unlikely to pay.
The New York Times reported Thursday that White House chief of staff Mark Meadows floated a potential trade in which Trump would sign off on scrubbing Confederate names in exchange for a repeal of a legal shield for social media companies, known a Section 230.
Smith told reporters he’s open to compromise to finish the $740 billion defense bill, but poured cold water on Meadows’ proposal.
“I don’t see how,” Smith said. “I want to find a way to get it done. And any sentence that starts with, ‘Hey, I think we got a way to get this done,’ I’m gonna listen to how it ends. But I’m not sure this is the path.”
Meadows’ pitch would mean Democrats agreeing to a major overhaul in internet law in exchange for a change the Pentagon could make once Biden takes over. The former vice president has expressed support for changing the base names.
The top House Armed Services Republican, retiring Rep. Mac Thornberry, said the likelihood of Biden changing base names should make negotiators more open to compromise. The Texas Republican warned that lawmakers shouldn’t tank the must-pass legislation over that lone issue.
“The incoming Biden administration is going to deal with the base naming issues anyway,” Thornberry said Tuesday at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “So really what we’re down to is whether it has to be in this bill just this way and whether that would provoke a veto.”
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