WASHINGTON – When key lawmakers overseeing the Department of Defense met privately this week to discuss a year-end effort to pass the annual military policy bill, Republican Senator James M Inhofe issued an ultimatum: If they wanted the measure to pass this year, they would need to remove his obligation to remove the names of Confederate leaders from military bases.
The provision received broad support from members of both parties and senior military officials when it passed the House and Senate this year, amid a nationwide outcry for racial justice, including the removal of historical symbols of oppression. But it infuriated President Trump, who threatened to veto it, and Mr. Inhofe, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, privately promised the president that he would make him disappear before it became necessary.
Mr Inhofe’s comments on Monday evening, which were described by two people familiar with the private discussion, gave a glimpse of an impending fight over the issue that could scold the entire defense bill in the last days of the Trump administration. Lawmakers began formal negotiations on Wednesday to reconcile versions of the legislation from the two chambers.
In the months leading up to the election, Mr. Inhofe had publicly warned that the bill could not become law if it included the provision, given Mr. Trump’s opposition. His comments this week reflect how, even as his presidency comes to an end, Mr. Trump has continued to cast a cloud over the fate of critical legislation that allows pay increases for US troops – all because of ‘a problem he almost completely found himself on. alone.
They also raised the prospect of a messy legislative confrontation over whether to defend Confederate symbols. The defense bill was passed by both houses with veto-proof majorities, but Congress was never able to muster the votes to overturn one of Mr. Trump’s eight vetoes during his tenure.
Still, many Democrats are spoiling themselves for a fight to maintain the provision, and a number of Republicans have made it clear they want to preserve it as well.
“I don’t think we should stray from our values and what we stand for,” said Rep. Anthony G. Brown, Democrat of Maryland and military veteran who drafted the House measure. “I don’t think we should close our eyes to what would be seen by many as the perpetuation of a racist symbol in a name, just because it threatens to veto the Defense Permission Act . “
President Nancy Pelosi of California said Wednesday evening that keeping the provision in the final bill was vital.
“It is imperative that the conference report includes provisions to ensure this key priority,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Our foundations must reflect our highest ideals as Americans.”
The two leading Democrats in the armed forces groups, Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the Speaker of the House, and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the leading Senate member, are both institutionalists who have bragged about ‘have adopted a bipartisan defense. bills every year, even if it means making compromises that disappointed the base of their party.
But Mr Reed said in a brief interview that he believes Congress should pass the legislation with the removal of Confederate base names included – and force Mr Trump to make a veto decision.
It is highly unusual for a provision that was passed by both the House and the Senate to be dropped during final negotiations on the bill, and Mr Reed said he did not think anyone, including Mr. Inhofe, would be able to do things unilaterally.
“I think we should pass the bill,” Reed said Tuesday. “Hopefully the president will reconsider. It was a bipartisan effort. The committee adopted it by vote with very few objections. Then, on the floor, the bill passed with over 80 votes and the House bill has essentially equivalent language. It was a bipartisan effort in both houses and must be recognized and supported. “
West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito said the language reflected the clear will of the majority in Congress.
“If he’s passed the two houses, let him in,” Ms. Capito said. “I would say most Americans would agree with that.”
A congressional aide who followed the negotiations said there were a number of issues that lawmakers had yet to address. But the clash on military bases is the most important, raising the prospect that the defense bill could be delayed for the first time in 60 years.
Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, worried aloud about the possibility on Tuesday ahead of a speech at the Heritage Foundation.
“It would be a shame for either of us to have a role to play for No.60,” Thornberry told reporters. “The question is, will the politics above us allow it?”
The basic name change language was crafted this summer amid nationwide protests against racism in police departments, which fueled calls across the country to demolish historical representations of racism. As part of their annual defense policy bills, the House and Senate each passed measures requiring the Pentagon to remove Confederate names from military assets.
Both versions received broad bipartisan support. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, told the Wall Street Journal in July that he would not block the effort to rename the bases, and in an interview with a Louisville radio station, he said that he had “no problem” with renaming the bases to “people who did not rebel against the country” General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Senior Military Advisor to Mr. Trump, told lawmakers the same month that he supported a “close review” of name change efforts.
Rep. Don Bacon, Republican of Nebraska, who drafted the House measure with Mr. Brown, said in a statement that “changing the names of these bases is fair.”
“While I do not want this issue to jeopardize this must-have legislation, I sincerely hope that Congress and the White House will show leadership on this issue,” said Bacon. “I’m not dogmatic about the process or the exact timing, but we have to fix this and stay on the right side of the story.”
Senator Todd Young of Indiana, who is a member of Mr. McConnell’s leadership team, said it was imperative that Congress adopt the military policy measure.
“My preference is to move forward with a bipartisan compromise,” said Young. “We cannot not authorize our national defense programs.”
But Mr Inhofe has always opposed the provision, arguing that the decision on whether or not to rename the bases should be left to local communities and states, rather than mandated by Congress. In July, Mr. Inhofe was overheard over the loudspeaker at a Washington restaurant, assuring Mr. Trump that the provision would not be part of the final defense bill.
“Are we going to keep Robert E. Lee’s name?” Mr. Trump asked Mr. Inhofe.
Mr. Inhofe replied: “Trust me. I’m going to get there.
Asked Tuesday about the details of the negotiations, Mr. Inhofe declined to discuss private conversations. A spokesperson for Mr Smith also declined to comment, citing an informal policy of not disclosing details of their negotiations.
Several House Democrats, including those with military background, have privately signaled that they would be prepared to oppose the entire bill if it were removed.
Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia and his party’s former running mate, said there was “absolutely no way back.”
“I believe that if we put this bill on the president’s desk, he is not going to veto it,” Kaine said. “It’s a big bluff. We are not backing down.