Key senators predict victory in battle with Trump over renaming military facilities that honor Confederates

The U.S. Capitol Building. Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images.

WASHINGTON — Key U.S. senators are preparing for battle with the White House over renaming military facilities that honor Confederates — and they’re expecting to win.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who backs the effort, said he believes the GOP-controlled Senate would override a possible presidential veto of a defense policy bill that would begin a process to rename the facilities. Doing so would require support from two-thirds of those voting.

“I think we need to put it on his desk,” Kaine said. “If he were to veto this bill, I think we would override it.”

Kaine said support for the amendment is “very strong” among Republicans in both chambers of Congress. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the amendment by voice vote, a procedure that’s generally used for measures that have broad bipartisan support, and Kaine noted that only one senator voted against it at the time.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, a high ranking Republican from Iowa, predicted that Congress would “probably” override a possible veto, according to The Hill. Iowa’s junior senator, Republican Joni Ernst, told Black leaders in Des Moines on Friday, that she also supports renaming the bases. “I could care a whit if we keep those names because those were Confederate generals,” Ernst said, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

And Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged President Donald Trump to “reconsider” vetoing the bill in an interview with Fox News, noting that it includes pay raises for troops.

Republicans hold 53 seats — or 53% — in the U.S. Senate. Democrats hold 233 seats — about 54% — in the U.S. House.

Offered by Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the amendment would begin a three-year process to remove from military property the names, symbols, displays, monuments and other paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederacy and those who voluntarily served it.

The nation is home to 10 major Army bases  named for Confederate generals: three in Virginia, two in Georgia, two in Louisiana and one each in Alabama, North Carolina and Texas.

The amendment passed during a closed-door markup of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a measure that authorizes federal funding for the U.S. Department of Defense and other national security programs through fiscal year 2021. The “must pass” legislation has cleared Congress 59 years in a row and is on course to hit the 60-year mark this fall.

If the amendment becomes law, it would be a major victory for the movement for racial justice and equality, which has intensified in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died while in police custody.

Trump slammed the amendment after it passed and then threatened to veto the $740 billion defense bill because of it.

“I will Veto the Defense Authorization Bill if the Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren (of all people!) Amendment, which will lead to the renaming (plus other bad things!) of Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, and many other Military Bases from which we won Two World Wars, is in the Bill!” Trump said in a tweet.

Senators will resume debate on the bill after they return from their two-week July Fourth recess. Some senators have filed amendments that would soften or change the amendment’s base language in the bill, Kaine said. “But I don’t think they’ll get 60 votes, so I think the provision as is in the Senate will stick.”

House bill

The U.S. House marked up its own version of the bill earlier this month. An amendment to rename military installations passed along party lines, and the overall bill was reported unanimously out of the committee, said Ralph Jones, Jr., a spokesperson for Rep. Donald McEachin, a Virginia Democrat.

The House version requires the Defense Department to identify, report on a process and change the names of all military bases and infrastructure named for individuals who served in the Confederacy within one year, Jones said — two years less than the Senate version.

The effort comes as tributes to Confederates are coming down across the country.

On Thursday, McEachin introduced legislation that would direct heads of the Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments to inventory and study works on federal lands that commemorate Confederates on flags, symbols, signs, statues or plaques.

“Our public lands play a vital role in capturing the historical and cultural stories that shape our nation’s history and identity, and these lands help facilitate the national narrative of the American Civil War,” McEachin wrote in a letter to colleagues urging support for the bill. “Despite the significant role public lands play in our education and reflection of the War, we do not have a complete picture of what Confederate commemorative works exist on these lands.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ordered the removal of four portraits of former House speakers — two from Georgia, one from Virginia and one from South Carolina — who served as Confederate leaders.

Last month, Pelosi called for the removal of 11 statues in the U.S. Capitol that represent Confederate soldiers and officials. Mississippi has sent two to represent its state, and nine other states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia — have sent one, according to The Hill.

Pelosi asked a joint congressional committee to direct the Architect of the Capitol to take immediate steps to remove the statues, which states selected to represent them in Congress. The statues, she wrote in a letter to the committee chairs, “pay homage to hate, not heritage.”

McConnell, however, has said the decision to remove statues should be left to states. The effort to rename military facilities is “quite different from trying to airbrush the Capitol of every statue,” he told Fox News last week.

House Democrats are also preparing for a vote to remove a marble bust in the U.S. Capitol of Roger Taney, a former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and replace it with a bust of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice on the high court.

Taney wrote the court’s decision in the 1857 Dred Scott case, which held that Black people could not be citizens of the United States, that Black residents were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” and that enslaved people were considered property under the U.S. Constitution.

The Dred Scott decision in effect extended the institution of slavery throughout the country and set the country down a path that inexorably led to the Civil War.

Marshall, on the other hand, was the founder and executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and led many successful legal challenges that began to dismantle racial segregation in the Jim Crow era. His most famous victory was the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which called for the integration of schools and marked the end of the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine that undergirded many segregationist policies for more than half a century.

“I have long believed that it is past time to remove the bust of Roger Brooke Taney from public display in the U.S. Capitol building,” said U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. “Justice Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott Supreme Court case is one of the worst decisions to ever come out of the court, and the reckoning our nation has faced in the past few weeks further illustrates the need to take this action.”

States Newsroom Washington correspondent Daniel C. Vock contributed to this story.