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Senate chairman vows fight over Confederacy issue

Inhofe plans to water down language requiring name change for bases honoring Confederate generals

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., walks to the Senate floor for a vote on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., walks to the Senate floor for a vote on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo) (CQ Roll Call)

Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that he will try to dilute his committee’s newly adopted proposal that would require the Defense Department to rename bases and other assets named after Confederates.

The committee approved a fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill on Wednesday evening. The measure includes an amendment by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to establish a commission that would make recommendations on how, not whether, to change the names of bases, ships and more. The Pentagon would have three years to change the names.

The committee adopted the amendment by voice vote during closed-door deliberations. But Inhofe told reporters he does not agree with the provision, and he indicated precisely how he might try to weaken it, either on the Senate floor or in conference.

First, he said, he would change it from a requirement to change Confederacy names to an option: “‘shall’ respond should be ‘may,’” he said.

Secondly, he said state and local communities should be involved not just in informing the commission’s work but also in ultimately making the decision over whether and how to rename bases.

“We’re talking about input of the community not just in the process but how to decide,” he said.

The issue of renaming bases named for Confederates has come to a head amid nationwide protests following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis.

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Collision course

The GOP-majority Senate panel’s decision on Wednesday to require changing of base names such as Fort Bragg and Fort Benning was seen as a rebuke of President Donald Trump, who had tweeted earlier that day that he would oppose such a change.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday that the president would not sign into law a defense authorization bill that includes a requirement to rename bases. Thursday’s comments from Inhofe, one of Trump’s most loyal backers on Capitol Hill, indicate that the debate is far from over.

Trump plans to resume campaign rallies that had been suspended because of the coronavirus with an event in Inhofe’s home state on June 19. That is Juneteenth, the annual celebration of the end of slavery. And Tulsa, where the rally will be held, was the site of a violent attack on African Americans that killed scores and injured hundreds in 1921.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, told reporters on the same call that he supports the renaming of bases.

“It represents to me a very thoughtful, careful and ultimately bipartisan approach to a very difficult issue,” Reed said.

The issue will also likely surface when the House Armed Services Committee drafts its version of the defense authorization bill in a marathon public session on July 1.

Democratic Rep. Anthony G. Brown of Maryland, an Air Force veteran and the only black member of the committee, has drafted a stand-alone bill similar to Warren’s proposal.

It seems likely that Brown would attempt to attach it to the fast-moving defense policy bill, typically the only measure the Armed Services panels take up each year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that renaming military bases to eliminate Confederate associations may take legislation but she is not sure yet whether that would be part of the annual defense authorization, a stand-alone measure or combined with legislation to get rid of Confederate statues in the Capitol.

“But these names have to go from these bases and these statues have to go from the Capitol,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi also criticized Trump for his opposition to renaming military bases.  

“You listen to who they are and what they said and then you have the president make a case as to why a base should be named for them. He seems to be the only person left who doesn’t get it,” she said.

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Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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