The White House also opposes a bevy of other provisions, detailed in a formal veto threat against the House-passed NDAA. That includes bipartisan efforts to constrain his plans to remove thousands of U.S. troops from Germany and precipitously withdraw forces from Afghanistan.
Trump shows no signs of backing down after he fired Esper in a tweet on Monday, replacing him with National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller after the president and Esper clashed over a number of issues. The shakeup continued Tuesday with the resignation of acting Pentagon policy chief James Anderson and the installation of Anthony Tata — whose nomination for the same job collapsed this summer amid scrutiny of his Islamophobic tweets and other derogatory statements.
Still, lawmakers have mustered bipartisan support for all of those disputed provisions. Both chambers passed their bills in July with enough votes to override a potential veto.
Here’s a look at what could be in store for lawmakers and the defense bill in the weeks ahead:
Will Trump make good on his veto threat? Trump made waves this summer by making the veto threat over the Confederate issue, which primarily involves 10 Army bases named for leaders on the losing side of the Civil War. Versions of the provision were included in both House and Senate bills with bipartisan support.
Several defense experts predict even a lame duck Trump won’t back off his promise to veto the bill over the wedge issue.
“He’s been very clear on this,” Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “What you see is what you get. If he says he’s going to veto it, he’s going to veto it.”
The White House also detailed a litany of objections in a formal veto threat for the House-passed defense bill — including bipartisan efforts to block Trump’s from removing thousands of U.S. troops from Germany, constrain a total withdrawal from Afghanistan and limit the president’s emergency powers to redirect some Pentagon money to a border wall.
Senate Armed Services Chair Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), like Trump, wants to quash the effort to rename bases. He’s also one of the few members of Congress to endorse the Trump administration’s plan to remove 12,000 troops from Germany, which has been panned by Republicans and Democrats as a boon for Russia.
Inhofe’s opposition could complicate negotiations, but those provisions challenging Trump won bipartisan support in the House. And provisions that pass both the House and Senate, as provisions pushing to rename bases did, rarely get yanked from a final defense bill.
More than three dozen Senate Democrats, led by Massachusetts progressive Elizabeth Warren, urged Armed Services leaders in a letter this week to defy Trump and force the renaming of bases, arguing it is “long past the time to correct this longstanding, historic injustice.” Warren authored the amendment to the Senate NDAA to rename bases.
“Renaming these bases does not disrespect our military — it honors the sacrifices and contributions of our servicemembers in a way that better reflects our nation’s diversity and values,” the 37 senators wrote.
Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), the House Armed Services vice chair who authored the chamber’s base renaming provision, argued there’s plenty of support among lawmakers in both parties and military leaders to pursue the change, adding that there’s “no point in studying this issue further or delaying action.”
“The Civil War ended 155 years ago, we know what the right side of history is. President Trump and those standing in the way of progress will be remembered as such,” Brown told POLITICO in a statement. “What’s abundantly clear is that Americans are looking for their leaders to turn the page, leave divisiveness behind and move this country forward. We have the votes to get this done, we should do it now.”
Overriding Trump’s veto: If Trump follows through and vetoes the bill, congressional leaders will be faced with a vote to override the president in the final days of 2020 and will have little margin in time and votes to do so.
Trump has vetoed eight bills during his term and Congress has yet to muster enough bipartisan support to reach the two-thirds majority needed to overturn any of them.
The House and Senate passed their versions of the NDAA in July with veto-proof majorities, defying Trump’s threats. But neither chamber can afford to lose many votes. Conservative Republicans who supported the bill over the summer will have to stay the course and defy Trump. It’s also unclear if progressive Democrats who opposed the bill in both chambers would reverse course and help overturn a Trump veto.
Enacting the NDAA over Trump’s veto is an “easy override” for lawmakers if the commander in chief’s justification is to stop the renaming of bases, Eaglen predicted.
“This is what you’d call an easy vote,” Eaglen said. “I just don’t see much complicated about this.”
Others aren’t so optimistic that lawmakers can pass a defense bill over Trump’s objections. Arnold Punaro, a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, cautioned a compromise NDAA likely won’t be ready until December near the end of the congressional session, giving lawmakers little time to override Trump.
“I think either a re-elected Trump or lame duck Trump will veto the bill if there are items in there he does not approve. He won’t be looking the other way,” Punaro said. “The Congress won’t be overriding a defense bill that gets vetoed in my view. And there is not time for all of that.”
A ‘face-saving compromise’? A Trump veto isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion if lawmakers and the administration can strike a deal on renaming bases and other issues that allows all parties to claim a legislative victory.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will be hesitant to pass a defense bill that Trump will veto, predicted Tom Spoehr, a retired three-star Army general with the conservative Heritage Foundation. Instead, McConnell and Inhofe will look for “some kind of face-saving compromise” on renaming bases.
“[Inhofe is] going to have a sense of where the red lines are, and he’s not going to agree to, in conference, a bill that he knows Sen. McConnell is not going to agree with and the president is going to veto,” Spoehr said of NDAA talks. “They’re too good of politicians for that to happen.”
“I think there’s a way to maybe rewrite to bring in more support. I’m game for that. I don’t want it to be my way or the highway,” added Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, a Republican who coauthored the base renaming provision with Brown. “But in the end, there needs to be a positive change there.”
Such an attempt may have already come from Esper before his ouster. NBC reported that Esper compiled a written framework for renaming bases that suggested the NDAA could require military installations, ships and other assets be named for individuals who have met certain criteria, which would rule out Confederate leaders and other people who betrayed the U.S.
It’s unclear whether Democrats would agree to a watered down provision. A House Democratic aide told POLITICO that the House Armed Services negotiating position is to be explicit on what will be changed and how quickly.
Waiting for a Biden administration: Some of the most contentious differences between lawmakers and the Trump administration may be rendered moot by Biden’s victory, and may influence the trajectory of defense negotiations.
Biden, who criticized Trump for weakening U.S. alliances, ran on restoring U.S. international standing and could scrap the outgoing administration’s nascent plans to shift troops out of Germany. He’ll inherit a peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban jump-started by Trump, but Biden has also called for leaving a residual troop presence in Afghanistan and could alter the pace of the withdrawal there.
Biden supports scrubbing Confederate names from bases, declaring in June that he would “look forward to implementing” provisions in the Senate NDAA, authored by Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, that would set up a commission to asses the names over a three-year period.
Punaro said Democrats could elect to punt a number of tough issues into the next year, when the House will have a stronger hand with a Democratic White House.
Others predicted lawmakers won’t change course solely based on who holds the White House.
“They’re not going to strip the NDAA of these things about restrictions on troops in Europe, Korea, Afghanistan,” Spoehr said. “Those aren’t just going to magically go away because the presidency has changed. And I think people would be resistant to this custom-tailored NDAA based on who the president is.”