Republicans ready counterpunch over Confederate-named military bases

The issue will be at the center of Senate debate on the defense bill next week

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.,  on Capitol Hill on June 11. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., on Capitol Hill on June 11. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 24, 2020 at 6:50pm

A GOP member of the Senate Armed Services Committee proposed legislation Wednesday that is aimed at countering a campaign to expunge from Defense Department property homages to the Confederacy.

The measure — an amendment to the defense authorization bill by Josh Hawley of Missouri — could become the principal conservative answer to a call for removing commemorations of the South’s “lost cause” such as the name of Fort Bragg in North Carolina or of ships such as the USS Chancellorsville. 

The campaign to do away with Confederate names in the U.S. military is, like the moves to topple statues honoring Confederates, driven by the anger sparked by the police killing of George Floyd and other Black people. Those tensions are reflected on Capitol Hill.

NDAA debate

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The friction over this question will loom large when the Senate takes up the defense bill, or NDAA, which is queued up for debate next week.

The $731.3 billion measure, made public Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee, contains a provision that would require the Pentagon to remove from its assets within three years any “names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate” the Confederacy or anyone who voluntarily served with it. 

The measure also would create an eight-member commission to help inform how — not whether — that goal is to be met. The bill would authorize $2 million for the commission’s operations.

The committee’s provision on the Confederate names, written by Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, was crafted so that it could clear the GOP-run panel.

However, also on Wednesday, Warren and 35 other Senate Democrats announced they would support a harder line in a freestanding bill — which could also become an NDAA amendment. The Senate Democrats' new measure would speed up the change, requiring it to be completed in one year, and would do away with the commission entirely.

[Democrats’ new push: Cleanse Confederacy from military in a year]

"Senate Democrats are putting forward legislation to change the names of our bases and other military assets within one year because we need to stop honoring this ugly legacy immediately," Warren said in a statement on Wednesday.

Hawley readies proposal, as does House 

Hawley’s amendment, meanwhile, would strike Warren’s compromise provision from the Senate NDAA bill. His amendment would do away with the mandate to remove Confederate homages and instead leave it to a commission to explore the matter — with a requirement for state and local input.

The commission would make recommendations to Congress in October 2022. And lawmakers would then have to decide what to do.

“Any discussion about renaming bases should be had in the light of day, out in the open, and it should involve military families, veterans, and state and local stakeholders,” Hawley said in a statement Wednesday. “That’s what my amendment would do.”

The House version of the NDAA — which the House Armed Services Committee will finish writing in a July 1 markup — is likely to be the platform for a similar debate. 

In that chamber, a bipartisan pair of Armed Services members — Democrat Anthony G. Brown of Maryland and Republican Don Bacon of Nebraska — have written a measure addressing the issue. 

The Brown-Bacon bill would require replacing Confederate and other potentially offensive names and symbols on U.S. military assets within one year, and they would set up an 11-member commission to review the details of implementing it. 

Political divisions

Democrats have shown few signs of division over the issue, while Republicans are clearly divided over it. 

President Donald Trump has taken a hard line resisting calls to do away with vestiges of past celebrations of Confederates and has threatened to veto the defense bill over the issue.

Within Trump’s party, he has been backed by not only Hawley but also Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and others who say they would prefer to let state and local officials make such decisions. 

But others in the GOP are backing away from Trump on the Confederacy issue. Besides Bacon’s involvement in the House, several members of the Senate GOP leadership team have indicated an openness to considering changes to the names of bases that now honor Confederate generals.

These include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is descended from a Confederate veteran.