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Trump faces clash with Congress over Confederate names on military bases

Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), left, Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) wait to join other senators for an eight-minute, 46-second pause on June 4 to commemorate the life of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Democrats are challenging President Trump and Republicans over Confederate symbols in this moment of reckoning over racial injustice, with calls to remove statues at the U.S. Capitol and rename military bases despite the president’s objections.

Trump has rejected the idea of stripping the names of Confederate generals from installations for other military figures and called on Republicans Thursday to stand united. But several in the GOP said they were receptive to the idea, a reflection of the rapid shift in politics and public opinion after the killing of George Floyd in police custody sparked nationwide protests about systemic racism.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Thursday that he is open to the prospect of renaming U.S. military bases.

“I’m not opposed to it,” McCarthy told reporters at his weekly news conference, adding that he would wait to see what steps were taken in the defense bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it may take legislation or action by the House Rules Committee to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol. (Video: Reuters)

The showdown with the president is being waged through the annual military policy bill, a popular, bipartisan measure making its way through Congress. It comes against the backdrop of efforts in both parties to craft police reform legislation, in which Republicans like McCarthy have expressed a willingness to consider some Democratic proposals, including a ban on chokeholds.

The White House has indicated Trump would veto the entire National Defense Authorization Act if it includes language that would rename the bases — a move that would lead to a host of other consequences, including no 3 percent pay raise for troops, no funding for new aircraft or ships, and no money for research related to the coronavirus.

Yet on Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved by voice vote an amendment to the measure offered by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that would require the Pentagon to remove the names of Confederate generals from military assets within three years.

Assets are defined as bases, installations, streets, buildings, facilities, aircraft, ships, planes, weapons, equipment or any other property owned or controlled by the Defense Department.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he supported Warren’s amendment.

“The message is that if we’re going to have bases throughout the United States, I think it should be with the names of individuals who fought for our country,” Rounds said. “And so I think this is a step in the right direction. This is the right time for it. And I think it sends the right message.”

Asked about Trump’s opposition, Rounds replied, “Well, look, we’ll work that through.”

The committee passed the overall $740 billion bill Thursday morning by a vote of 25 to 2, sending it to the Senate for consideration. News of the amendment’s approval was first reported by Roll Call.

On Thursday afternoon, Trump singled out Warren in a tweet in which he called for Republicans to oppose the Massachusetts Democrat’s amendment — even though it had already been approved.

“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, using a slur alluding to Warren’s claim of Native American heritage. “Hopefully our great Republican Senators won’t fall for this!”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) signaled that he is open to the idea as well. “I do not think we ought to try to rewrite history,” he told reporters. “I think it’s always appropriate to review the people and places that we honor to see if they fit the context of the times in which we live.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said he hasn’t taken a position on the issue but added, “I think we should actually study it.”

“I don’t think we should ignore that,” he said. “I think we should actually look long-term and what that really means. I’ve been pretty outspoken on things like schools. I don’t think schools should be named after Confederate leaders and generals. You’ve got a role model issue there.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), meanwhile, said he opposes the provision on renaming bases and may try to weaken it once the measure gets to the Senate floor, Roll Call reported.

In another challenge to Trump, the bill includes a provision by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) that would prohibit the use of military funds or personnel against protesters. The move comes after Trump recently threatened to dispatch active-duty forces against protesters demonstrating against police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s death.

The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation before the end of June.

On Wednesday, Trump rejected the idea of removing the names honoring Confederate military figures who fought on behalf of preserving the institution of slavery, saying in a tweet that he would “not even consider” changing the names of bases.

Trump’s own defense secretary, Mark T. Esper, has said he would consider such proposals, and prominent former military figures, including retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, have suggested that such a step is overdue.

“The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars,” Trump tweeted. “Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!”

On Thursday morning, he struck a similar theme, tweeting: “THOSE THAT DENY THEIR HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT!”

In the House, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), an Air Force veteran, has joined forces with Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), an Army veteran, to introduce a stand-alone House measure that would create a process to rename military installations honoring Confederate leaders within a year. According to the lawmakers, there are 10 such bases and facilities.

“As the most diverse and integrated part of American society, it is only right that our installations bear the names of military heroes who represent the best ideals of our Republic,” Bacon said in a statement announcing the move.

Trump rejects calls to rename military bases honoring Confederate generals

Separately, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is calling for the removal of 11 Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol, a process that would involve action by a joint congressional committee and resolutions approved by the states that sent the statues to be displayed.

On Thursday, Pelosi voiced support for both removing the statues and renaming U.S. military bases, noting that the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in response to Floyd’s death have brought renewed attention to the issue of Confederate symbols. Trump, she said, “seems to be the only person left who doesn’t get it.”

“This is the perfect time for us to move those statues, because other times people may think, ‘Oh, who cares, I never go there anyway. I think they all look alike to me. They’re all these white men there.’ That’s what I think,” Pelosi said. “On the other hand . . . the timing might be just right.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the issue should be left to the states.

“Every state is allowed two statues. They can trade them out any time,” McConnell told reporters. “A number of states are trading them out now, but I think that’s the appropriate way to deal with the statue issue. The states make that decision.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who leads the joint committee along with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), said Thursday that he would support moving the Confederate statues to lower-profile spots in the Capitol, but noted that their complete removal would be up to the states.

Mike DeBonis, Seung Min Kim, Anne Gearan and John Wagner contributed to this report.