It’s not a crisis. It won’t delay a new class of submarine at Electric Boat. But a lame-duck president’s renewed threat to veto a massive defense spending bill is an end-of-year complication at the end of a year that needed no more complications.
At issue is not the $740 billion bottom line, nor congressional insistence on spending for a program unwanted by the Pentagon. President Donald J. Trump’s threat ostensibly is aimed at preserving the names of military bases honoring leaders of the Confederacy.
“It seems to be another feckless, obstructionist tactic by a president who seems more bent on destroying than building anything,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democratic member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In competing versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, the House and Senate ignored a veto threat Trump made during the campaign and included bipartisan language stripping Confederate honors from U.S. military facilities. The House version set a one-year deadline. The Senate’s created a commission to address the base naming issue over three years.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, a member of the House Armed Service Committee, said the brinkmanship is odd, given that the House Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus already have compromised on the issue of base names by agreeing to a slower process favored by Senate Republicans.
“So right now the real question is: Are the Senate Republicans going to let this bill go down because they won’t take yes for an answer?” Courtney said.
NBC news reported that Trump has renewed his veto vow as a congressional conference committee begins work to resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions of a defense authorization bill for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.
Blumenthal and Courtney sit on the conference committee, and both expressed surprise in separate interviews that Trump and congressional Republicans are willing to jeopardize one of the longest-running traditions in Congress, the adoption of a defense authorization act. It’s been managed every year since John F. Kennedy’s tenure in the White House.
“The National Defense Authorization Act has been done traditionally every year before Dec. 31,” Blumenthal said. “It’s one of the the few really reliable actions we do every year, and it’s bipartisan — as it was this year.”
Courtney said the bill is one of the Congress’s major policy statements, establishing a funding framework for the Pentagon. The Trump administration’s original proposal in February overruled the Pentagon and cut funding for submarine production, interrupting a construction schedule of two Virginia-class submarines a year.
The House version of the defense authorization reinstated full funding for two Virginia-class submarines, while the Senate version offered a partial restoration. That is one of the major differences before the conference committee. But the massive bill also has a provision that could affect the extent to which the Connecticut Air National Guard will have a mission.
Courtney, the chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, represents a district that is home to the Electric Boat submarine shipyard in Groton. The authorization bill provides funding for the new Columbia-class of submarines as well as continuation of the Virginia-class.
But one of his priorities over the summer was organizing opposition to an Air Force plan to shift spending away from C-130 cargo planes now flown by Reserve and National Guard units in at least 14 states.
The defense authorization bill adopted by the House in July required a minimum of 292 C-130s in the Tactical Airlift Fleet, not the 255 sought by the Trump administration. Eight C-130 planes are currently flown by the 103rd Airlift Wing stationed at the National Guard base at Bradley International Airport.
“If we don’t limit their discretion, we’re going to start seeing planes disappear,” Courtney said.
Gov. Ned Lamont was one of 14 governors to write to the chairs and ranking members of the two Armed Services Committees urging them to stop the cutback.
The veto threat
Trump’s veto threat revives a base-naming issue that seemingly had cooled.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the chair of the Senate committee, voted for the measure with its Confederate name-stripping provision, but he now is calling for the removal of the language, Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal said Inhofe is only reflecting the president’s position.
Inhofe told the Washington Post that Trump’s veto threat must be resolved, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a longstanding policy of not scheduling a vote on measures opposed by the president.
“He’s not going to put anything on the floor that has a veto threat. And so we have to overcome that,” Inhofe said. But he also said he had no intention of going without a defense authorization bill for the first time at least 59 years. “We’re going to do it in this Congress.”
Politico first reported in June that the Army was reconsidering its resistance to renaming military installations named for Confederate leaders, including some of the service’s major bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Mark T. Esper, who was Trump’s defense secretary until his post-election sacking, sided with the Army and signaled a willingness to cease honoring long-dead officers who took up arms against the United States.
“There is simply no legitimate, let alone persuasive, reason to delete this provision from the bill,” Blumenthal said after a stop in Hartford. “This one has immense symbolic and persuasive significance.”
Courtney, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday and is in quarantine at his home in Vernon, spoke by telephone.
The version of the bill adopted by the conference committee must win final approval by the House and Senate. If Trump vetoes it, a new version will have to be adopted once the new Congress takes office in January. If that happens, the scramble resumes over big-ticket submarines and the fate of three dozen C-130s.