Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reaffirmed his support for the Senate’s version of the bill that directs the Pentagon to rename such bases within three years. In the House Armed Services Committee — where lawmakers were expected Wednesday night to approve a similar provision accelerating that time frame to one year — the panel adopted a proposal by Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) to ban Confederate flags on all Defense Department property — with no Republicans objecting.
The panel is crafting the House version of the annual defense bill that authorizes a pay raise for service members and billions of dollars for new weapons, fighter jets and ships.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus, emboldened by the national reckoning over racial injustice, rolled out an expansive list of legislative priorities to push the conversation even further. The group is seeking a vote on legislation that would require a national commission to study and come up with possible reparations for slavery.
Members of the caucus also are hoping to pass a bill requiring the removal of all Confederate statues from Statuary Hall in the Capitol — possibly by month’s end, according to House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).
“Symbols matter,” said Thompson, who is crafting a bill to send Confederate statues in the Capitol to the Smithsonian. “The president of the Confederacy is one of two statues that we have here in the Capitol from my state of Mississippi,” referring to Jefferson Davis.
He gestured to his fellow caucus members and added, “If that gentleman had won the war, as president, none of these people would be here in Congress today. I’m not certain we should hold people like that in high esteem.”
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who chairs the caucus, echoed the sentiment, asking her colleagues to see themselves in caucus members’ shoes: “If you could just absorb for a minute what it feels like . . . to walk past statutes of people who didn’t even feel we were human, who wanted us to be in chains.”
The congressional push to remove Confederate symbols from the Capitol and defense installations faces opposition from some Republicans.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Wednesday that while he regretted the president’s veto threat, he agreed with Trump’s view about stripping the names from military bases. He vowed to work to rid the defense bill of the provision before it reaches Trump desk, all but assuring there will be an internal GOP fight.
“It’s part of our history. It’s part of our heritage,” Inhofe said. “They’re tearing down statues and doing all these un-American things. The president feels strongly about it and I do, too.”
Across the Rotunda, several House Republicans agreed.
“I think the local people ought to decide,” Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex.) said of military bases. “This is a big part of history, okay? Right [or] wrong, it’s definitely a big part of history.”
But those comments belied a growing sentiment among many Capitol Hill Republicans, including some who have long privately griped that Trump’s racist comments repel Americans.
“I would hope the president would reconsider vetoing the entire defense bill, which includes pay raises for our troops, over a provision in there that could lead to changing the names of these military bases,” McConnell told Dana Perino in a Fox News interview. Changing military base names is “quite different from trying to air brush the statues in the Capitol,” he added.
“I would be happy to see, I would support changing the names of bases that were named in the honor of Confederate generals,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “Those individuals fought against the United States of America. And we should instead be honoring people who fought for the United States of America.”
The two chambers will have to reconcile their competing defense bills before sending the document to the White House. The House’s defense bill is expected to include more expansive and accelerated provisions to expunge the Confederacy from all corners of the military, setting up a likely confrontation with some Republicans like Inhofe who want to water down the Senate’s less-ambitious bill.
The Senate bill is silent on the issue of Confederate flags.
“This is not an issue that requires a great deal of study. A vast majority of Americans support this,” Brown said. “The history and cause of the Confederacy centered on racism and oppression.”
Democrats are unlikely to entirely abandon the anti-Confederacy measures in the defense bill in advance of the election. That the provisions in question have bipartisan support makes it even less likely that Democrats will be willing to negotiate away from the mandate to change the base names.
“Prioritizing the base names of Confederate generals over the welfare of our troops is just plain irresponsible and wrong,” said Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
With Congress out of Washington for most of the fall, the ultimate question of whether Congress stands up to the president — and whether he makes good on his veto — will likely come after the election. The annual defense bill is considered a must-pass measure and has been approved by Congress for each of the last 59 years.
In the meantime, more forceful objections to some of the Black Caucus’s other legislative priorities are likely, as the group of several dozen black lawmakers seeks to leverage the moment to lock down policy wins. Even some moderate Democrats, for example, have privately expressed concerns about voting on reparations legislation amid the economic meltdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which they note is hurting many Americans of different racial groups.
Some Republicans have a more visceral reaction to the idea of compensating the descendants of slaves. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) appeared perturbed, giving a dismissive “psst” sound and initially saying the question wasn’t even worthy of a comment.
“It’s ludicrous,” he said of reparations. “There’s not a single person in this country that was a slave . . . If you want to talk about slavery, there’s human slavery in this world right now going on, right now: Human trafficking is huge, sex slavery, there’s domestic workers in this country that are probably enslaved . . . How about we look forward to figure out how we can move this country forward, provide opportunities for all Americans? How about we just take race out of the equation?”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), sponsor of the reparations bill, argued Wednesday that her proposal merely would set up a 13-person commission to study the issue. Any payments for slavery would come from the government, not from individuals, because “slavery was government-sanctioned,” she said.
“We understand that the disparities that are so stark, that are reflective of the brutality, or the cruelty, the fundamental injustice and humanity of slavery, have never been answered,” she said, later adding that “it was a government sanction that denied African Americans their equality . . . This is . . . the American government’s responsibility to pay her debt.”