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Senate GOP leaders buck Trump on base names

McConnell, Thune suggest they are inclined to support Warren amendment in NDAA

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol in May.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol in May. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Less than a week after President Donald Trump said he hopes Senate Republicans will not “fall for” a proposal to rename U.S. military bases and other assets that honor Confederates, Senate Republican leaders on Tuesday said they are considering doing just that.

But other Senate Republicans have joined Trump in opposing changing base names, revealing fissures within the party over how to respond to a public groundswell calling for changes in America’s racial laws, rules and policies across the board.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that he is open to the changes, noting as an aside that he is descended from a Confederate veteran.

“I can only speak for myself on this issue, if it’s appropriate to take another look at these names, I’m personally OK with that,” McConnell said.

Earlier in the day, John Thune, the Senate’s majority whip, also distanced himself from Trump on the issue.

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The South Dakota Republican suggested to reporters that he is inclined to support an amendment by Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren that the Senate Armed Services Committee incorporated into its draft defense authorization bill for fiscal 2021, the NDAA.

Warren’s measure would require the Pentagon to jettison within three years all names, symbols, displays, monuments or paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederacy or anyone who volunteered to serve it, Senate aides have said.

The NDAA text is expected to be published this week. The Senate will debate the bill in the coming weeks.

“I think that you reevaluate, given the timing and circumstances and where we are in the country, who we want to revere . . . by naming military installations or other national monuments,” Thune told reporters.

“And so I think you have to periodically take a look at that,” he said. “And in this case, it’s perhaps time to do it.”

Opposition to proposal

Warren’s proposal faces opposition not just from the White House but also from some Senate Republicans.

One of them, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, told reporters Tuesday that he will offer an amendment to the NDAA to rename every military base in the country after a Medal of Honor recipient. Kennedy said Warren’s amendment “picks on the South unfairly.”

[Pelosi wants 11 Confederate statues removed from Capitol]

Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Armed Services chairman, also opposes Warren’s proposal.

Inhofe told reporters last week he would look to dilute Warren’s provision on the Senate floor or in conference. He is considering offering a change that would make doing away with Confederate vestiges an option, not a mandate, he said. And he suggested, too, that state and local governments should get veto power over naming decisions.

The House NDAA, which the Armed Services Committee will consider starting next week, is likely to include a provision that largely mirrors Warren’s, perhaps one written by a pair of House Armed Services members: Maryland Democrat Anthony G. Brown and Nebraska Republican Don Bacon.

Thune said a possible presidential veto threat against the NDAA over the issue is “not something that you trifle with but,” he added, “it’s not, I think, insurmountable.”

Trump weighs in

Trump tweeted last week that changing the names of bases such as Fort Bragg that honor Confederate generals would dishonor the military.

“Seriously failed presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth ‘Pocahontas’ Warren, just introduced an Amendment on the renaming of many of our legendary Military Bases from which we trained to WIN two World Wars,” Trump tweeted. “Hopefully our great Republican Senators won’t fall for this!”

In fact, Senate Republicans are coming out one by one in support of doing away with base names and other things that honor Confederates.

The Republican apostates also include Roy Blunt of Missouri, another member of the GOP leadership team, and Thune’s fellow South Dakota Republican, Mike Rounds, who is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., has also publicly backed changes to Confederate base names.

“Obviously at the time maybe it made some sense based on where the country is, but the country’s in a different place today,” Thune said. “I think you have to take into consideration context, and the context in this case suggests that maybe it’s time to take another look.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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