Two big streaks are on the line as Congress debates a massive defense policy bill in the final days of its lame-duck session.
Lawmakers have passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), setting the Pentagon’s budgetary and policy guidelines, for 59 years in a row, typically with substantial bipartisan support.
But President Trump has issued strong veto threats against the NDAA for fiscal year 2021, while trying to become the first president since Lyndon Johnson to serve a full term in the White House without a single veto being overridden on Capitol Hill.
Something has to give, as the House and Senate have agreed on compromise language this week for a final version of the bill that largely dismisses the president’s concerns and has already passed both chambers with veto-proof majorities.
Despite Mr. Trump’s threats — including one issued as recently as Thursday afternoon — the final bill includes a provision to rename military bases that honor Confederate leaders, and does not have language to end legal protections for social media companies — two outcomes that Mr. Trump has said must be in the legislation.
Mr. Trump doubled down on his latest veto threat Thursday on Twitter, accusing “certain Republicans” of “getting cold feet” for bluntly rejecting his demand to repeal the so-called Section 230 provision that offers a legal shield to social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter about the content on their sites.
“The termination of Big Tech’s Section 230,” Mr. Trump wrote, is “a national security and election integrity must.”
But key Republicans have rejected the White House’s demand, saying the tech issue is not something that should be included in a defense policy bill. As one of the few must-pass measures as the current Congress winds down, the NDAA has become a tempting target for other pet projects.
The $740.5 billion bill includes a number of attractive features for lawmakers, including a 3% pay raise for troops, funding for new weapons systems, new policies to deter China and Russia, and increases in housing protections and standards for military families.
It rescinds Mr. Trump’s emergency declaration to obtain funding for the Mexican border wall, puts at least a temporary hold on plans to draw down more troops in Afghanistan, Germany and South Korea, and orders a Government Accounting Office study of U.S. backing for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war.
The final bill also ignores a veto threat Mr. Trump issued this summer on the base-renaming issue. The House originally pressed for the Pentagon to rename nearly a dozen bases and facilities named for Confederate figures, but agreed to a proposal by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, to effectively extend the deadline to three years.
But despite bipartisan opposition, it’s not clear who holds the better hand.
“I’m not sure if [lawmakers] have the votes to override his veto,” Todd Harrison, the director of budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview. “So what they may have to do is just wait him out, wait till he leaves, and then pass the bill again.”
He said that the rhetoric coming from Republican allies “is really just designed to put pressure on the president, because Congress wants to get this done before they close out the session.”
Although other presidents have threatened to veto the defense bill over policy differences, Mr. Harrison said that this year is different “because the veto threat now is based on things that aren’t a defense issue.”
Tech policy in a defense bill
Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act protects companies that can host trillions of messages from being sued by anyone who feels wronged by content someone else has posted — whether their complaint is legitimate or not.
“It just doesn’t fit on the NDAA has nothing to do with [the] military and nothing to do with the issue,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and usually a strong supporter of the president, told reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday. Mr. Trump has reportedly been pushing to include the provision to repeal Section 230 for weeks, despite having only gone public with his demand this week.
Lawmakers say a straight repeal without a substitute regulation brings other complications, and should not be done without a legislative mark-up in perhaps the last days of Mr. Trump’s tenure.
“He’s been president for four years, and has never done anything [legislatively] on the issue … until literally three weeks ago, when [White House Chief of Staff] Mark Meadows called me up and said he wanted to stick it on the defense bill,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith told Defense News.
“I think this is an issue we need to look at,” the Washington State Democrat continued. “This is not the place to look at it.”
“If the president is foolish enough to veto it, I think they’ve staked out their ground very clearly,” Mr. Smith told the publication of his Republican colleagues. “They’re not going to vote for [earlier versions] going out [of the House and Senate] and then change because it’s an override.”
Despite Republicans showing support for the repeal of Section 230, Mr. Inhofe highlighted that including it in the bill it would threaten the legislation’s passage as many Democrats do not back such a policy.
“My mission is to make sure we get a defense authorization bill that is good,” the Oklahoma Republican continued. “And we have one that’s good, it’s ready to go, and we are collecting signatures and the House is going to do the same thing.”
Mr. Inhofe is far from alone among his Republican colleagues in resisting the Section 230 language. The panel’s second highest ranking Republican, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, told reporters that repealing Section 230 “seems to be a complete non-starter” among Democrats.
“And of course it’s not a defense-related matter,” he added.
He told reporters that Mr. Inhofe may seek to come up with a compromise to please the president, but admitted that such a move is a “very tall order.”
The Senate’s second-ranking Republican, Sen. John Thune, said in a speech on the Senate floor that “failing to pass this legislation would send the wrong message to our troops and our allies and to our adversaries.”
“While this may not be a perfect bill, it contains a lot of important provisions to rebuild our military and give our men and women in uniform the tools that they need to defend our nation,” the South Dakota Republican continued. “We need to pass it as soon as possible.”
The pushback among Republican allies of Mr. Trump signifies a stark shift after years of steady support from top GOP lawmakers for the president.
Perfect record on vetoes
Mr. Trump has previously threatened to veto the crucial legislation. But unlike this year, Republicans have quickly moved to strike a compromise with the president on his key criticisms. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has said repeatedly he saw no point in sending bills to the White House that Mr. Trump had vowed to veto.
If the defense bill is not signed into law by the time the new Congress is sworn in next month, lawmakers would face the daunting task of rewriting the legislation virtually from the ground up.
However, the bulk of the policy bill has seen substantial bipartisan support for including a host of provisions that advance military readiness.
Both Mr. McConnell and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are expected to soon bring the legislation to the floor in both chambers for a vote in the coming days.
“The [NDAA] is about making sure our troops are cared for,” Mr. Inhofe said on the Senate floor this week.
“If we don’t have this defense authorization bill passed by December 31, our pilots are not going to get flight pay. The kids are not going to get hazard pay. The whole thing will fall apart. … It’s got to be done.”
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