But in the months since — and now despite Trump’s lame-duck status — Republican leaders on the armed services committees have become adamant that as long as he is threatening a veto, compromises must be made.
“There’s already a softening of positions, that I have seen,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in an interview Wednesday. “We have to have a bill.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has a policy, Inhofe said: “He’s not going to put anything on the floor that has a veto threat. And so we have to overcome that.”
There are 10 Army posts — located in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas — that carry the names of Confederate leaders. Earlier this year, the Senate passed a defense bill that ordered the names to be changed within three years, while the House passed a bill ordering the changes within one.
Leading Republicans have since proposed an alternative that would replace the name-change mandate with an instruction to the Pentagon to study the issue and come up with suggestions on a deadline. Democrats have not only rejected that suggestion, they deny that there has been any “softening” from their side, as Inhofe suggested.
“There is a bright line, and the bright line is that there needs to be a mandate for removal within a time certain,” Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who wrote its version of the Confederate base renaming provision, said in an interview.
Behind the scenes, a cadre of Republicans has been working on the president to come down off his veto threat, according to people involved in or aware of those discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private lobbying effort. The message they have tried to communicate is that it is not worth going down in history as the president who risked the fate of a defense bill Congress has passed every year for almost six decades over preserving remembrances of the Confederacy.
Some Republicans have used this rationale to press Democrats to relent — arguing that President-elect Joe Biden could order the name changes once he takes office, making the argument moot.
“The incoming Biden administration is going to deal with the base-naming issues anyway, so really what we’re down to is whether it has to be in this bill just this way and whether it would provoke a veto,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (Tex.), the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking Republican, told reporters Tuesday.
While the annual defense bill regularly comes down to a few contentious issues, rarely does the main sticking point so directly reflect a high-profile national debate, according to Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute, an expert on the defense bill process. The ongoing discussion about race means it’s likely, she said, that the debate over base names will be resolved by stronger political powers than the armed services committees’ leadership.
“There is no real negotiation between the Big Four,” Eaglen said, referring to the Democratic and Republican leaders of each chamber’s panel, who normally hash out the bill’s final contours. “The real negotiation is between Congress and the White House, on finding language that is face-saving for the president and acceptable for Congress to bring to the floor.”
With the battle lines set, where Congress lands will probably not be dictated by lawmakers’ preferences — a clear majority, including Thornberry and McConnell, have said they are ready to see the names changed — but by how fiercely each side is willing to fight.
In the Democratic-led House on Wednesday, the Congressional Black Caucus adopted a motion insisting that the defense bill include a mandate for removal in three years or sooner, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that it was “imperative” the defense bill “include provisions that secure this essential priority.”
In the Republican-led Senate, despite Inhofe’s assessment, McConnell has not said whether he will challenge the president’s veto threat by putting on the floor a bill that includes a mandate for base renaming.
The uncertainty has given rise to speculation that if Trump maintains his veto threat, Congress may fail to pass an annual defense bill for the first time in 60 years. Democrats leading the effort to include the base-names mandate have essentially adopted the position that, while that would be an unfortunate outcome, if Republican leaders are unwilling to budge, then so be it.
“We should not take pride in a 59-year winning streak if in doing so you are forgoing the things that you value,” Brown said, noting that even if the defense bill fails, the Pentagon will still be funded through separate legislation. “There’s so many authorization bills in Congress. . . . We don’t pass them on time, and the world goes on.”
Yet both Democratic and Republican armed services committee leaders have prided themselves on passing defense authorizations not simply for the winning streak, but because the promise of must-pass legislation gives them more ability to conduct oversight of the Defense Department.
Inhofe rejected the suggestion that Congress might fail to resolve the defense bill debate before the year ends.
“We’re going to do it in this Congress,” he said. “That’s a guarantee.”