Don’t take down those Fort Bragg road signs just yet.
Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly this week to back legislation forcing the Defense Department to rename military bases honoring Confederate leaders, including Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Benning in Georgia.
The moves came despite repeated veto threats from President Donald Trump over the issue and parallel new Defense Department orders banning the display of the Confederate battle flag on all installations, amid a military-wide reckoning over divisive symbols from the Civil War.
Despite the bipartisan backing in Congress, however, the fate of the base names are still far from settled. And it could be the defining issue for the entire $740.5 billion defense authorization bill, which includes must-pass provisions like military pay hikes, defense equipment purchase plans and strategic posturing of forces in coming years.
If the massive bill was vetoed, it would slow down big decisions ranging from how many Virginia-class attack submarines and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to buy, to the size and scope of a special fund to deter China in the Pacific.
After the Senate voted 86-14 on Thursday to advance their draft of the budget bill, House and Senate negotiators will enter conference committee work on the authorization legislation with the base names on top of the list of friction points.
The Senate version of the NDAA calls for the Pentagon to create a commission to review the scope of the Confederate names problem (to include base buildings, streets and equipment) and recommend changes to the problematic Army base names. Defense officials would have three years to make the changes.
The House draft, passed Tuesday, calls for a nearly identical review but mandates the renaming process begin within one year.
Supporters call it an overdue, commonsense move to eliminate hurtful and divisive vestiges of America’s slave-owning past.
“The Confederacy was not something that should be held up for honor by the United States or our nation’s military,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said in a House floor speech on Monday. “There is no shortage of honorable replacement candidates to receive the honor of having a military base, installation or facility named in their honor.”
But the Trump administration has labeled the effort as political correctness run amok, saying that changing the names would dishonor troops who have served at the sites.
“President Trump has been clear in his opposition to politically motivated attempts like this to rewrite history and to displace the enduring legacy of the American Revolution with a new left-wing cultural revolution,” the White House said in a veto threat on the House bill released Tuesday.
That threat did not dissuade Republicans from joining Democrats in advancing the bill, 295-81. More than half of House GOP caucus — 108 members — backed the authorization legislation including the base renaming language.
Because the base renaming provisions are in both bills, lawmakers will not be able to drop the matter altogether when they start conference negotiations, said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general and for eight years the staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee under chairmen from both parties.
But what that negotiation looks like remains uncertain. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., has indicated in recent weeks he is unhappy with the renaming language in his chamber’s bill, and will work to water down or replace in discussions with House leaders.
For now, few lawmakers seem panicked over the veto threat. The draft measures passed both chambers with veto-proof majorities, although that could change in the final votes later this fall.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, a SASC member whose state hosts three of the 10 bases whose names would be changed, and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley have both said publicly they believe the GOP-controlled Senate would muster the two-thirds vote necessary to override a possible presidential veto.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., has not yet publicly commented on the presidential veto threats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Fox News that “I hope the president would reconsider vetoing the entire defense bill — which includes pay raises for our troops — over a provision in there that could lead to changing the names of some of these military bases.”
Punaro said if the president backs off his strong opposition to the renaming issue and works towards adjusting the base renaming language, conferees “might be willing” to bargain.
During the House Armed Services Committee mark-up of the legislation, ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, proposed a softer version of the base name review, allowing for the possibility that local communities could opt to keep the Confederate monikers. The proposal was defeated, with nearly every GOP member on the committee backing it.
But if Trump — who has lashed out angrily about the proposals on social media in recent weeks — refuses to budge on the issue, “the conferees are going to put in the toughest language, since it’s going to get vetoed anyway,” Punaro warned.
That potentially could set up congressional passage of the bill, a presidential veto and an override vote all just a few weeks before the November election, putting the Confederate base names front and center in lawmakers re-election campaigns.
However, that timeline may be unrealistic given the depth of the budget measure, which contains thousands of technical provisions and issues to be reconciled. Lawmakers are hopeful the work can be done by the end of the year, preserving Congress’ streak of 59 consecutive years finalizing the authorization bill.
And if Trump vetoes the measure because of the names issue, they may need to pass it twice to get to 60.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.