Republicans face long odds of changing provision on Confederate-named bases

Republicans face almost insurmountable odds to change a provision on the renaming of Confederate-named bases included in a mammoth defense bill.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, in a voice vote last week, amended the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to require that a commission be formed to study and come up with a plan to rename military installations named after Confederate figures.

The bill has put the GOP-controlled Senate on a collision course with President Trump after the White House warned he would veto legislation that required bases be renamed. That threat sparked chatter among several GOP senators to try to change the bill on the Senate floor.

But Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Tuesday that he thinks it would be difficult for lawmakers such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to change the bill from its current form.

“I know Sen. Inhofe has expressed an interest in having, you know, maybe looking at giving cities and communities and states input. … But by and large, you know, it came out of the committee, it’s in the base bill, it’ll probably take 60 votes to get it out,” Thune said about the provision.

The problem for proponents of changing the language is that their options are extremely limited and would require help from Democrats, who supported the amendment in committee.

The provision would create a commission to come up with a plan within three years for renaming bases and other assets. At the end of three years, the Pentagon “shall” remove all names, symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederacy or anyone who served voluntarily in the Confederate army, a committee staffer said.

Inhofe has said he wants to change the language of the bill from “shall,” which is viewed as requiring the Defense Department to implement the plan, to “may,” which would give the Pentagon some flexibility and empower communities to be involved in the decision.

“That’s in the making right now, we don’t know how it’s going to end up,” Inhofe said Tuesday. “I’m going to make sure that [there’s] local support and that it’s done properly.” 

Inhofe said he had not spoken with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about getting an amendment vote, but indicated that he would be talking to the GOP leader.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also said he would offer an amendment taking issue with the provision telling the commission “what conclusions to reach,” including renaming the bases.

“The committee has prescribed the result … and that I think is a mistake. I think that’s the wrong way to go about this. … So I think removing that mandate is the key thing we’ll look to do,” Hawley said.

Hawley stopped short of predicting he will be able to get a vote once the bill is brought to the floor but said he would “do what I can to offer it.”

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) told reporters he believed the provision “picks on the South unfairly.”

“I think history will show that in the 18th century, in the 19th century and well into the 20th century there were many non-Confederate generals, soldiers and others … who practiced racial discrimination, anti-Semitism and misogyny,” he said.

Kennedy said he will offer an alternative plan once the bill is brought to the floor to rename every military installation in the country after a Medal of Honor recipient.

Senators file hundreds of amendments to the NDAA every year, but there’s no guarantee they’ll get a vote. In recent years, the Senate has held only a handful of roll call votes amid a stalemate on which proposal should be allowed to be brought up.

To get a vote on this particular provision, Inhofe, Hawley or another senator will need consent to bring up their amendment and make it pending, a step that puts it in line to get a vote. But, underscoring the difficulty for removing the language from the bill, any one senator, namely Democrats, could object to that effort.

McConnell could alternatively try to force a vote on an amendment by filing cloture, but that would require 60 votes and give Democrats another attempt to block it.

Asked specifically about giving the Pentagon more flexibility on whether to rename the bases, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) appeared skeptical.

“That looks like they’re looking for an escape,” Durbin said. “The notion that Fort Bragg is named after an incompetent Confederate general, who’s defending that? Who wants to honor that man? … We shouldn’t look for a backdoor escape.”

In a potential blow to supporters of rewording the provision, McConnell indicated he was open to changing Confederate-named bases.

“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 told reporters, adding that he had not discussed the provision in the defense bill with Trump.

“For myself, with regard to military bases, whatever is ultimately decided I don’t have a problem with,” he added.

House Democrats are expected to include a similar provision that would change Confederate-named military installations in their defense policy bill, which they are expected to start work on later this month. Once the House passes its bill, the two chambers will need to go to a conference committee where they will craft a final version.

Typically, if both the House and Senate include a provision in their respective bills it’s difficult to prevent it from ending up in the final agreement, though Inhofe has said they could try to take the base renaming provision out in the conference committee.

Trump has signaled he’s opposed to changing the names, adding an extra complication to getting the NDAA signed into law.

“My Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations,” Trump tweeted. “Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!”

It’s hardly the first time a president has threatened to veto the defense bill, which typically passes Congress with veto-proof majorities. Former President Obama, for example, repeatedly threatened to veto the bill over restrictions on moving detainees out of Guantánamo Bay. He vetoed the bill once, in 2015, though he signed a subsequent version by the end of the year.

Thune said he didn’t think a veto threat for this year’s NDAA was “insurmountable.”

“Maybe, in time, you know, the president’s position on that based on what he’s hearing and kind of where Congress ends up on this, he may end up, who knows, modifying that, too,” Thune said. “Right now, we’ve got a provision in a bill that at least for right now looks like that’s going to be maybe the new position. We’ve got a lot of legislative process to go through.”

Tags Dick Durbin Donald Trump Jim Inhofe John Kennedy John Thune Josh Hawley Mitch McConnell

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