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Senate’s 2021 defense bill passes easily, sets up Trump veto showdown over Confederate base names

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 23, 2020

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed their version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act with a provision to strip 10 Army posts of Confederate-linked names, setting up a veto showdown with President Donald Trump who has objected to such name changes.

The 86-14 passage of the $740.5 billion bill that sets annual Pentagon spending and policy priorities comes just two days after the House easily passed its version of the NDAA, which also would force name changes of Army installations named for Confederate generals from the Civil War. The White House on Tuesday, hours before the House passed the measure, issued a 13-page statement objecting to several provisions within the bill, but primarily the issue of Confederate names.

Senate leaders praised the bill as a step forward for the U.S. military, providing it critical funding to modernize its force as it eyes potential conflict with near peer rivals, such as China and Russia.

“The [Senate’s] NDAA gives our military the personnel, equipment, training and organization needed to implement the National Defense Strategy and thwart any adversary who would try to do us harm,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “By fully investing in our military growth and modernization, we're restoring deterrence so no country wants to challenge us. I don't want a fair fight out there, I want to be superior — and this bill does that.”

The two chambers now must conference to reconcile differences in their versions of the legislation, an effort that traditionally takes months. Lawmakers have said they do not expect the NDAA to be finalized ahead of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Both chambers passed their versions of the NDAA with more than a two-thirds majority, which would be needed for each body to override a presidential veto and make the bill a law without Trump’s signature.

Among the chief differences within the two chambers versions of the bill is the issue of the Confederate-named installations. The House version forces the Army to remove such names within one year of the bill becoming law, while the Senate version would require the building of a commission to study the issue with the goal of stripping Confederate names within three years.

Trump has repeatedly vowed to veto any legislation that forced the military to change the names of those 10 posts, which include major installations such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Benning in Georgia and Fort Hood in Texas. The posts, all in former Confederate states, were named during the Jim Crow era of the early 1900s during the lead up to World Wars I and II.

Trump has defended the names as historically significant.

“We won two world wars, beautiful world wars that were vicious and horrible, and we won them out of Fort Bragg,” Trump said in a Fox News interview that aired Sunday. “We won them out of all of these forts and now they want to throw those names away.”

Not every senator who voted for the bill on Thursday agreed with the provision about Confederate-named installations. That includes Inhofe.

He has said he would prefer a process that includes local leaders to examine the names of the Army posts, and would not automatically force changes. Inhofe has also said he would bring up such issues as the two chambers worked to form a final NDAA.

Both bill versions include key provisions sought by the Pentagon: A 3% pay hike for troops, an increase in the military’s end-strength, and investments in upgraded ships, aircraft and other weapons.

The House and Senate versions also have provisions aimed at identifying and curbing groundwater contamination primarily via the use of firefighting foam containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. And both versions would establish a new initiative aimed at checking China’s growing military power in the Indo-Pacific region.

Aside from the Confederate-named installations, there are other critical differences between the bills. The House version limits the president’s ability to remove troops from locations across the globe, including Germany, South Korea and Afghanistan. The Senate did not vote on an amendment presented with similar limitations.

The White House in its veto threat said it “strongly objected” to such measures in the House version, and it accused lawmakers of including them to “micromanage” the president’s powers.

The House version also would prohibit the use of Pentagon money for live testing of nuclear weapons, which the Senate version does not address.

In a statement, Inhofe and the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, applauded the upper chamber’s passage of the bill for 60 consecutive years.

“I’m pleased the vast majority of my colleagues joined Sen. Reed and me in voting for this bill,” Inhofe said in the statement. “And now, I look forward to working with the House to get an NDAA enacted for the 60th straight year in a row.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC
   

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