Georgia Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler joined Hill Republicans in bucking President Donald Trump on Friday, voting to pass a defense policy bill that the president has been working for weeks to scuttle.
The 84-13 vote on the annual National Defense Authorization Act forced every Republican in Congress to choose between their loyalty to the president and passing a measure many in their ranks considered more important than politics.
But none of them, perhaps, were in a more precarious position than Perdue and Loeffler, both of whom have been courting the president’s blessing as they campaign ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff elections that will decide their political fates and the majority control of the Senate.
In a joint statement after the vote, the senators cited the nine military institutions in the state.
"This critical defense bill fully funds our military, gives our troops a significant pay raise, prioritizes our military families, and continues to improve military housing," they said. "While there were several provisions we would have changed, our main mission is to support our military."
Both parties believe the results of the Georgia runoffs, in which Perdue and Loeffler face Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively, will hinge on turnout. That has forced the Republican senators to maintain a delicate balance between appeasing Trump and following the dictates of a GOP that is slowly coming to terms with his November defeat.
Trump’s hold on his most passionate voters, who have shown up in force at GOP rallies, is still considered strong enough that he could derail the Republicans’ chances with one negative tweet. Loeffler and Perdue have stayed in line.
They have supported Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of ballot irregularities in Georgia, resisted acknowledging Democratic president-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the state and supported a Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn election results in Georgia and three other states — an unusual attempt to infringe on state sovereignty that discounts the authority of the Republican election officials who oversaw the election and certified the result.
In many of those steps, the Georgia Republicans were not alone — on Thursday, for example, 106 House members filed a brief with the Supreme Court supporting the Texas lawsuit, including four members from Georgia.
The NDAA vote shone a spotlight on fissures in the president’s GOP support in Washington.
Trump stepped up pressure on Congress in recent weeks over the defense bill, promising a veto if a provision was not removed that created a process to scrub the names of Confederate soldiers from military bases. He also said the bill should include language eliminating liability protections from tech companies in retaliation for actions by the companies he contends hurt Republicans.
In their statement, Perdue and Loeffler said Trump was "absolutely right" that the tech company law needs to be changed and "we are fighting to do that in separate legislation."
"Although we disagree with renaming of military bases, we believe local communities are best suited to make those decisions," they said.
Georgia is home to more than 130,000 civilian and uniform military personnel, more than all but five other states,according to Defense Department statistitcs.
The state received $13.7 billion in defense spending in 2018, the thirteenth highest total in the country, and defense spending accounted for 2.3 % of the state’s GDP, according to the office of economic adjustment.
Two military bases could be renamed under the bill passed Friday. Fort Benning was named for Henry L. Benning, a prominent defender of slavery and advocate of succession. Fort Gordon is named for former Gov. John Brown Gordon, a Confederate Army captain believed to have headed the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.
Trump invoked those names at a rally in Valdosta, Ga., on Saturday with Perdue and Loeffler, noting that the base renaming provision added to the defense bill by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, was a sign of what would happen if Democrats get control of the Senate.
"If these people get control, their draconian military cuts will devastate Fort Benning, Fort Gordon, and the military families all across Georgia. We would also like to save the names of the forts if you don't mind everybody," Trump said.
"They put in the Elizabeth Pocahontas Warren clause, where they have the right to take all the names of our past warriors, heroes in some cases, many cases, some turned out to be heroes in disguise, perhaps, but they want to take the names off," Trump said.
The annual defense authorization bill approved Friday has passed with bipartisan support for 59 years and is considered core to the government’s function. The bill, which authorizes some $741 billion in defense spending, includes a pay raise for troops.
It passed the House Tuesday on a 335 to 78 vote, enough to override a veto. Some 40 Republicans, 37 Democrats and independent Rep. Justin Amash voting against it. Sixteen Republicans did not vote and New York Democrat Eliot Engel voted “present.”
Both Perdue and Loeffler voted for the bill in July, when it contained the base renaming Trump opposed and did not do anything about internet companies.
In touting his vote in July, Perdue, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it would keep Georgia as "a backbone of our national defense." Loeffler called the bill “critical,” in a July press release that noted her opposition to renaming bases.
Friday’s vote was the fist Loeffler has cast in the Senate since Nov. 30. Perdue voted Friday morning on a procedural motion setting up the bill’s passage before supporting final passage. Those were his first votes since Dec. 3.
The two have missed more votes since the November election than nearly every member of the Senate as they have divided their time between business in Washington and campaigning in Georgia.
Only California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, the vice president elect, has missed more votes than Loeffler since Nov. 3. Harris has voted just twice in the 40 votes since the election, giving her a participation rate of 5 percent, according to CQ Roll Call data. One of those votes was Friday morning on the procedural motion.
Loeffler has voted 14 times, for a participation rate of 35 percent. Perdue has voted 28 times, for a rate of 70 percent. Nearly all of the missed votes were on nominations.