Dem divide over Confederate bases threatens massive defense bill

By Heather Caygle, Connor O’Brien and Sarah Ferris

An internal fight over renaming military bases that honor Confederates has broken out among House Democrats — turning pointed and personal in recent days and threatening to doom the popular bipartisan provision.

All Democrats — and many Republicans — support scrubbing the names of Confederate leaders from military facilities. But the provision in the annual defense policy bill has caused a splinter within the Democratic Caucus as lawmakers weigh what’s more important — axing the language and ensuring the $740 billion bill is passed on time, or forcing the issue, all but guaranteeing a showdown with Republicans and President Donald Trump, who has threatened to veto the bill if it remains.

"There's a disagreement among members on this,” Rep. Anthony Brown of Maryland, a top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Monday. “If there was ever a reason to delay the reauthorization until we get it right, it certainly would be one of them."

Democrats have just a couple of weeks to reconcile their differences in the waning days of this Congress or risk breaking a nearly six-decade streak of sending an annual defense policy bill to the president’s desk.

Some Democrats are privately worried that House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith is more concerned with a timely passage of his bill than eliminating a shameful remnant of the nation’s pro-slavery past at a time when America is undergoing a reckoning over racial justice.

Smith vehemently disputed this accusation, calling it “absolutely not true.” The Washington state Democrat also underscored the importance of passing the defense policy legislation before the end of the year.

"I have no intention whatsoever of dropping this in order to get a bill passed,” Smith said in an interview Monday. “We'll have to see what offers are made and what's out there.”

“It's not just the CBC or leadership. It's a pretty strong caucus position that the bases ought to be renamed,” Smith added. “There is no justification at this point in our history to continue to have bases renamed after people who rose up in armed rebellion against the United States in order to preserve slavery."

A bridge marks the entrance to the U.S. Army's Fort Benning as the sun rises in Columbus, Ga. Fort Benning is named after Confederate officers.
A bridge marks the entrance to the U.S. Army's Fort Benning as the sun rises in Columbus, Ga. Fort Benning is named after Confederate officers.

Democrats’ latest effort to broker a compromise came Sunday as Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a call with Smith, Brown, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and CBC Chair Karen Bass (D-Calif.) to figure out a way forward.

Pelosi and Hoyer have been adamant in insisting the Confederate base provision is included in the final version of the defense bill currently being negotiated by House and Senate conferees.

And Democrats ended the call Sunday agreeing that preserving the language — despite Trump’s veto threat and a rapidly ticking clock — is of top importance. Smith and Brown are working together this week on potential compromise language that maintains the integrity of the provision but that Republicans will also support. Their goal is to send that language to Democratic leaders by Thanksgiving.

The National Defense Authorization Act provides a blueprint for military policy and spending and is one of the few major bills that becomes law every year. Lawmakers have enacted the defense bill for 59 consecutive years.

Leaders from the House and Senate Armed Services committees are aiming to draft a compromise bill that’s ready for a vote in early December. But Republican resistance on base names is complicating the talks, though provisions to strip Confederate names from military assets had been included in both House and Senate bills earlier this year.

Trump has threatened to veto any defense bill that would force the renaming of 10 Army bases that bear the names of Confederate leaders and has labeled the move an attempt to rewrite U.S. history. Senate Armed Services Chair Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a Trump ally, backs the president and is pushing to strip it from a final defense bill.

Both bills passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities over the summer and with enough votes to overturn a potential veto. But it's unclear if those bipartisan margins will hold — requiring Republicans to buck Trump — if the lame duck president makes good on his threat.

Republicans are in a particularly awkward position. GOP lawmakers defied Trump and overwhelmingly supported the defense bill, but have since stuck close to the commander-in-chief, with few even acknowledging President-elect Joe Biden's election victory.

“It depends on what language is in there. We’ll have to see,” said House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican, when asked whether Republicans would be willing to send Trump a bill that he would oppose. “It depends on what language is in there.”

The debate has caused a rift within the House as many Democrats say the question of whether to hold firm on the issue — even if it results in a public fight with Trump and potentially delaying passage of the bill until early next year — speaks to the core of Democratic values. And for many, especially Black and progressive lawmakers, it’s one of the only key legislative victories that might become law after a wave of national protests over the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police.

Those Democrats worry that whatever compromise language is proposed will be too watered down to actually be effective and could be something as neutered as expressing support for renaming the bases and encouraging the incoming Biden administration to do so — but not actually requiring action.

"Those names, Confederate names, were put up there to sow division and hatred, to subjugate a people," Brown said. "We're not going to dilute this with some ... abstract notion about 'Oh, let's just promote peace and harmony and eliminate hatred.' ... It needs to be clear on that."

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a senior progressive and CBC member, said Democrats must ensure the provision remains in the bill “if people are committed, as I think members of our Democratic caucus are, to ending systemic racism.”

“What’s important is that we’ve got to fight,” Lee said, noting that she believes most Democrats will want to follow the lead of the CBC. “We’re standing firm on that. Let’s hope the Senate Republicans do the right thing.”

But some Democrats say even more can be done next year and that Biden can accomplish much of this on his own via an executive order. The former vice president backed efforts to rename the installations during the campaign.

And other Democrats say the party is spending so much time arguing with one other that they’re weakening their negotiating position on the issue — even though they’ve already secured bipartisan support on the idea. They say it’s the Republicans who should be squirming, not Democrats, since it’s a GOP president who’s attempting to preserve Confederate history against the wishes of his own party in order to satisfy his base.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats on the Armed Services Committee are essentially unified on keeping the language to rename bases as is, from progressives like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to moderate Joe Manchin of West Virginia, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Warren and 36 Senate Democrats urged negotiators to keep the provisions in the final bill in a letter earlier this month. The top Senate Armed Services Democrat, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said in an interview last week that the provision "has to be maintained" in the final bill.

The issue is a top priority for the Congressional Black Caucus, which unanimously voted last week to adopt a formal position requiring that any bill must have the renaming of any military property honoring the Confederacy within three years. With the two parties deadlocked over policing reform, the renaming of Confederate bases could be the most substantial language on justice for Black Americans signed into law this year.

The Senate bill would give the Pentagon three years to rename the bases. The more expedited House provision, authored by Brown and Nebraska Republican Don Bacon, would do so over just one year.

But even after House and Senate Republicans largely agreed to the renaming of Confederate bases this summer, there have been some new complications.

Smith said last week that House negotiators now back the slower Senate proposal to remove Confederate names over three years, but to no avail so far. He chided top Senate Republicans, who have indicated they won't approve a bill Trump will veto, for giving the president cover on the issue.

"Thus far, they are refusing to accept their own language," Smith said.

Still, he sounded an optimistic note that lawmakers can bridge their differences and pass a 60th consecutive defense bill on time.

“Just about every year with maybe one or two exceptions we run into things that appear intractable and then we find some way to make them tractable,” Smith said. “I don't know exactly what that is at the moment, but we're not giving up."

Burgess Everett and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.