Congress girds for possible veto override votes on defense bill

Only a handful of Republicans have said publicly they would vote to sustain a veto of the popular NDAA measure

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., is seen in Russell Building on Dec. 10.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., is seen in Russell Building on Dec. 10. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 17, 2020 at 6:29pm, Updated at 8:15pm

Corrected 8:15 p.m. | With President Donald Trump’s latest threat to veto the defense policy bill still fresh in their minds, lawmakers were already looking ahead Thursday to the prospect of casting politically charged override votes. 

The key question now is not so much whether Trump will veto the bill — that seems almost certain given his continued threats to do so — but whether enough Republicans who voted for the measure a week ago would change their tune and vote to sustain a Trump veto in the days ahead.

The answer, for now, seems to be: not enough Republicans will change course on a bill that authorizes military pay raises and construction projects and sets Pentagon policy on hundreds of matters. The measure has been enacted annually for 59 years.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has said he would not vote in favor of an override of the bill, which is known as the NDAA. At least two Senate Republicans — Josh Hawley of Missouri and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — told reporters Thursday they would also vote to sustain a Trump veto. Hawley serves on Armed Services and Graham is a former committee member.

Still, fully 80 percent of Republicans voted last week to clear the defense authorization conference report in votes that showed large veto-proof margins. A mass reversal to sustain the veto of an outgoing president would seem a tall order.

Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, tweeted Thursday that the override votes, if they occur, would be a test for congressional Republicans: “Throw your hat in with the crazy lame duck,” he said, “or assert a modicum of independence in the name of national defense?”

Veto-proof majorities

The House and Senate both voted last week to overwhelmingly adopt the $731.6 billion measure. The House vote on Dec. 8 was 335-78, with 140 of 180 Republicans who voted agreeing to the measure. Three days later, the Senate adopted the NDAA by the count of 84-13, with 43 of 50 Republicans voting for it.

If Trump does not veto the conference report by Dec. 23, it will become law. 

If he vetoes it by then, Congress can override it with two-thirds majorities in both chambers. But the House and Senate would have to do so before the next Congress begins Jan. 3.

If lawmakers miss that deadline, they would have to launch a lengthy process of rebuilding the measure in a new Congress.  

House and Senate leaders hope members can leave town before Christmas — maybe by this weekend. So override votes would most likely occur after that holiday.

Trump's gripes

Trump has threatened for weeks to veto the NDAA over two issues. One is something the bill contains — a requirement to rename military bases that honor Confederates. His other concern is something the bill does not contain — a repeal of legal protections for social media companies found in Section 230 of a 1996 communications law.

Earlier this month, Trump added a third reason: an unspecified and widely disputed allegation that the measure is soft on China. 

And Thursday, he alluded to a fourth bone of contention. He objects to the NDAA, he seemed to suggest, because it would require the Pentagon to certify that the president’s planned troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Germany are in America’s interest, or the troop movements cannot take place.

One tweet Thursday provided Trump's summary of his problems with the measure.

“I will Veto the Defense Bill, which will make China very unhappy. They love it,” Trump tweeted. “Must have Section 230 termination, protect our National Monuments and allow for removal of military from far away, and very unappreciative, lands. Thank you!”

James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and typically a Trump ally, told reporters Thursday he was aware of Trump’s latest veto threat — and not pleased about it.

“I was sorry to see that he tweeted that,” Inhofe said. “But nonetheless, he did.”

Republican disagreements

Graham wasn't present for the NDAA conference report vote, and he told reporters Thursday he would vote against an override unless Congress votes to “sunset” Section 230, the legal shield for social media companies. 

“I'm going to stick with the president and his effort to get something done on 230,” Graham said. “If it takes using the NDAA as leverage, so be it."

Inhofe, for his part, said it is too late in the process — and in the year — to alter the NDAA, a message Inhofe has said he has conveyed to Trump.

“There's nothing we can do on 230,” Inhofe said. “I think most people realize that there is nothing to be done to change a bill that has already passed the House and the Senate.”

Some other Republicans who supported the NDAA declined to say whether they would vote to override a veto

“I would have a very difficult time not voting for all that’s in that good bill,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, an Armed Services Committee member. 

But Sullivan said he is waiting to see whether the president follows through on his veto threat and what Trump’s ultimate justification might be.

“It’s hypothetical right now,” Sullivan said in a brief interview.

The timing of both a possible veto and any override votes are not yet clear, apart from the Dec. 23 deadline for Trump to veto, if that is his plan. 

Lawmakers hope to have left town by then, but Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters Wednesday that the Senate would come back from its holiday break before the Jan. 3 start of the next Congress to vote on an NDAA override — assuming the president vetoed it and the House voted to override it.

This report was revised to correct Graham's vote on the NDAA conference report. He was not present.

Chris Cioffi and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.