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Lawmakers line up showdown with Trump over Confederate base names

Trump’s veto threats could complicate enactment of Pentagon policy bill

The defense authorization conference report for fiscal 2021 will defy a veto threat and require a change to the names of U.S. military bases that honor Confederate soldiers, according to a senator who championed the change.

“It’s in,” Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told reporters Wednesday.

President Donald Trump had threatened to veto the NDAA if it contained such a requirement. On Tuesday evening, he threatened a veto on another issue: his insistence that the final measure repeal a law that protects social media companies from certain lawsuits.

The conferees were expected to sign the NDAA conference report Wednesday evening. The Senate voted by unanimous consent Wednesday morning to formally go to a conference on the bill, the last procedural step before the measure is made final, and the Senate also named its conferees on Wednesday.

The legislation, which has become law for 59 straight fiscal years, would authorize for fiscal 2021 about three-quarters of a trillion dollars in defense spending and would set Pentagon policies. The House and Senate adopted their versions of the bills with veto-proof margins earlier this year.

The House hopes to vote on the conference report next week, top aides said. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell then must decide whether and when to bring it up in the Senate.

Civil War legacy

Before Trump’s 11th-hour threat on the social media issue, the Confederacy topic had been the last thorny dispute that needed to be resolved before the bill could be finalized.

The Confederate base names had become a charged issue as the country wrestled this year with a reckoning on race sparked by the recent killing of several African Americans in police custody.

Both chambers had passed NDAAs that would mandate a change in Confederate base names. The House had included a provision by Democrat Anthony G. Brown of Maryland and Republican Don Bacon of Nebraska that would require the Defense secretary to make the switch within a year. The Senate had opted to include language by Warren to establish a commission to implement the changes within three years.

The final conference report is expected to reflect the basics of Warren’s provision on the timing and implementation details, rather than the House language, one aide said.

James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had promised Trump he would try to get rid of the mandate. But McConnell and other GOP leaders did not back this position, and the Senate never even voted on amendments to the NDAA to get rid of Warren’s language.

“Our military should no longer honor those who fought to divide this country and keep others in bondage,” Brown told CQ Roll Call in a statement. “It is clear to me and a majority of the American people that a mandatory process for the redesignation of Department of Defense property honoring the Confederacy must be included in the final NDAA. We have a duty to get this done.”

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Veto threats

Trump had threatened to veto the bill if it required name changes at military installations that honor Confederates, such as Fort Benning in Georgia, where two hotly contested Senate runoff elections are set for January.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Wednesday that he would be “reluctant” to bring a defense authorization bill to the floor that doesn’t include provisions for renaming bases that honor Confederates, calling Trump’s threat to veto the measure if it includes such language “a racist position to take.”

“I made it very clear that if that, if the provision in the defense bill is not included, that we will have to visit the defense bill next year,” Hoyer said.

Trump’s other veto threat came Tuesday night in a tweet. He warned that he would send the defense authorization bill back to Congress if it did not repeal Section 230 of a 1996 telecommunications law, which prevents online companies from being sued in relation to most of the third-party content posted on their websites.

If Section 230 is not “completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA),” Trump tweeted, “I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk.”

Hoyer called the Section 230 veto threat “shameless and indefensible.”

Other Democrats, including Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, also criticized the president’s veto threat.

So, too, did a smaller number of Republicans.

Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, issued a statement Wednesday morning noting the veto-proof support for the fiscal 2021 NDAAs and urging that issues unrelated to defense be excluded from the measure — an indirect reference, it seemed, to Trump’s Section 230 veto threat.

“The purpose of the bill has always been to support our troops and to protect American national security,” said Thornberry, who is retiring at the end of this Congress. “Disagreements on all other issues have been put aside. This year should be no different.”

Likewise, Inhofe, when asked Wednesday about the Section 230 veto threat, told reporters, “You can’t do it in this bill.”

Trump has been angered by Facebook and Twitter fact-checking his inaccurate posts, most recently including those that questioned the integrity of last month’s election.

But the Section 230 law protects more than Big Tech companies. Enacted when Silicon Valley was in its nascency, it aims to protect small startups from frivolous lawsuits that could hurt their business, which has made lawmakers concerned about stifling innovation wary of a full repeal.

Trump’s tweet came as members of both parties had been working on ways to modify Section 230, rather than just jettison it, reportedly including possibly folding such a modification into the NDAA. But Trump made clear he just wants to scrap Section 230.

Year 60?

If Washington does not enact an NDAA before this Congress ends in early January, then lawmakers would likely do so promptly in the next Congress, although that would require some procedural maneuvers.

That would be a first, however. Congress has never failed to enact an NDAA in the same Congress in which it was filed, though on five occasions enactment slipped into the next calendar year.

Despite Trump’s threats, members from both parties are determined to ensure that the NDAA becomes law for the 60th fiscal year in a row, even if it has to happen in January.

“We have to have a bill, because so much depends upon it — taking care of our servicemen and women, making sure they have the equipment they need,” Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a brief interview on Tuesday. “I hope the necessity of that principle guides everybody.”

Dean DeChiaro, Ellyn Ferguson, Lindsey McPherson and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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