WASHINGTON ― Congress is moving ahead with its annual defense policy bill without repealing a prized legal shield for social media companies, testing President Donald Trump’s threat to veto the bill.
The compromise version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act does not include legislative language addressing the protections, enshrined in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, three congressional aides confirmed Wednesday.
“We worked hard to craft a bipartisan defense bill that actually focuses on national defense. It would be irresponsible of President Trump to hold the well-being of our troops hostage because he doesn’t like what’s trending on Twitter.” Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement to Defense News.
Section 230′s protections have served as a bedrock for unfettered speech on the internet, but Trump and other politicians, including Democrats (though for different reasons than Republicans) argue that Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have abused that protection and should lose their immunity from lawsuits.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe. R-Okla., reportedly said that while he agrees with Trump on Section 230, the provision “has nothing to do with the military.”
“You can’t do it in this bill. That’s not a part of the bill,” Inhofe told Politico, adding that he has conveyed that belief to Trump.
The bill finalized Wednesday contains language requiring several bases named after Confederate leaders be renamed, something Trump previously threatened to veto, according to an aide to Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who crafted the Senate version of the renaming provision.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., plan to bring the defense authorization bill for a vote in both chambers, Bloomberg Government reported. The Senate on Wednesday morning agreed to proceed to conference on the defense bill by unanimous consent.
Pelosi was ready to bring the bipartisan bill to the floor, said a senior Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive plans.
The $740.5 billion authorization bill cements decisions about troop levels, new weapons systems and military personnel policy. Senate Republicans tried to find a compromise that would see a change to Section 230, short of a wholesale repeal. Trump’s 11th hour demand came just as lawmakers were finalizing a compromise on the 60th NDAA in a row.
It’s unclear whether Senate Republicans have persuaded Trump not to veto the bill, which would create a politically fraught showdown ahead of a Senate runoff elections in Georgia that will determine control of the chamber during the first two years of President-elect Joe Biden’s tenure. The House and Senate passed their bills by veto-proof margins.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., objected to Trump’s veto threat, telling reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday: “I don’t think the defense bill is the place to litigate that.”
Close observers say that if McConnell is bringing the bill to the floor, it’s likely Trump has backed off his veto threat.
“Leader McConnell is very, very consistent. He doesn’t believe in putting bills on the floor that the president is not going to sign, which he’s said as recently as this week,” said Pete Giambastiani, a former Pentagon legislative affairs official in the Trump administration. “If Leader McConnell believes President Trump will not sign the NDAA, I’m not sure why he would waste the precious floor time he has left in the 116th Congress.”
A veto and override vote could not only eat up floor time congressional leaders needed to pass federal spending legislation and avoid a government shutdown, but demonstrate a level of disarray that might damage Republicans in Georgia.
“I think a veto could be overridden, but the amount of political capital that would have to be expended by all parties just isn’t worth the headache right now,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security expert with the American Enterprise Institute. “You have other things that need to get done, and Georgia hangs over everything.”
In a tweet thread Tuesday night, Trump threatened to veto the NDAA unless it contained a repeal ― his latest move in a long-running feud with social media companies. He argued the shield was a threat to national security and election integrity.
“Therefore, if the very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk. Take back America NOW. Thank you!”
But industry groups are wary of efforts to erode protections, and both lawmakers and congressional aides said this week that the issue was too complicated practically and politically to solve on the fly and drop into a bill without full vetting from Congress.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.