WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday joined the House in defying a veto threat from President Donald Trump to approve defense legislation that would remove the names of Confederate officers from American military bases such as Fort Bragg and Fort Benning.
The Senate approved the annual policy measure, 86-14, a margin that suggests more than enough support to override a potential Trump veto. The House approved its version on Tuesday by a veto-proof margin of 295-125. Now the two chambers will have to negotiate a final version. Both bills authorize $741 billion for the military, including a 3% pay raise for the troops.
The White House said in a statement this week that it supports the overall spending figure but expressed “serious concerns” about the House bill, including the mandate on base renaming.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said lawmakers will work to produce a joint House-Senate bill "that both sides can support and the president can sign.”
The Senate bill “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,'' Inhofe said, singling out China and Russia as the top threats to national security.
"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,'' Inhofe said.
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on Armed Services, also hailed the bill, saying it "strengthens our military and bolsters our capacity to effectively defend America from evolving security challenges.''
The bill invests in integrated technologies and platforms that improve deterrence, Reed said, and "provides our troops with decisive, lasting advantages and powerful, force-multiplying assets.”
Beside the 3% percent pay raise for more than 2 million uniformed service members, the bill authorizes the construction of a host of submarines and battle force ships, aircraft and other equipment and establishes the Pacific Deterrence Initiative to focus resources and oversight in the region.
The bill does not include an amendment sought by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, that would block the Trump administration's plan to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops now stationed in Germany.
Romney called the plan a “very bad idea” and a “slap in the face of a key ally, a friend and a great country.'' The plan also is "a free gift to Russia,” Romney said, adding that the Senate's failure to even debate his amendment "is a disservice to this chamber, to our nation and to our allies.”
Inhofe said he supported Trump's plan after a briefing this week from Pentagon leaders and the head of the U.S. European Command. "I believe the concept for realigning U.S. military posture in Europe, as the president has approved, is sound,” Inhofe said in a statement Wednesday. “The department is doing a good job of following the guiding principles I’ve described as the three F's: forward presence, force projection and families.”
Senate Republicans also blocked a slew of Democratic amendments, including one by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley responding to the Trump administration’s deployment of federal law enforcement officers amid street protests in Portland. Trump has said he will expand the use of federal forces to Chicago and other cities.
Officers wearing military-style camouflage uniforms with no identifying marks have patrolled city streets, sparking conflict with demonstrators. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has sued the administration, accusing federal agents of arresting protesters without probable cause, whisking them away in unmarked cars and using excessive force. Federal authorities have disputed those allegations.
Merkley’s amendment would require federal officers to be identifiable and bar the use of unmarked cars to make arrests.
“President Trump is deploying dangerous authoritarian tactics on our streets as a twisted campaign strategy,'' Merkley said in a statement explaining his vote against the defense bill. "We cannot let these secret police tactics and this attack on our democratic freedoms stand."
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., called Merkley's proposal nothing more than "political messaging ... designed to exploit violence in the streets for political gain and defeat President Trump.''
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., focused on the bill's bipartisan support.
“Whether in Syria or Afghanistan, the question is whether we will stand our ground and exert our influence, or allow Iran, Russia and terrorists to push us out,'' McConnell said on the Senate floor. "Fortunately, Chairman Inhofe, Ranking Member Reed and our colleagues on the Armed Services Committee have put forward a bill that rises to the challenge.”