Congress is preparing for a clash with President Trump over a mammoth defense bill that could result in the first veto override of his presidency, just a month before he leaves office.
Trump’s threat to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could scramble Congress’s year-end schedule; lawmakers had been hoping to leave town once they pass a forthcoming deal to fund the government and provide year-end coronavirus relief.
But leaders are warning that if Trump vetoes the bill they are prepared to return to Washington to vote on trying to override. Trump has issued eight vetoes, none of which have been successfully overridden.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) have indicated that dealing with this particular veto would be worth members flying back D.C.
“It’s not great … timing, traveling during a pandemic and all that. We do have the proxy voting here. But yes, if the president vetoes it, we will come back and vote to override,” Smith told reporters in a recent conference call.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said that “if the House overrides, we will come back. If they sustain it with their vote, we won’t.”
Under the rules governing vetoes, Trump has 10 days, not including Sundays or the day the White House receives a bill, to veto. That means he has until Dec. 23 to veto the NDAA and kick the fight back to Capitol Hill.
If Trump drags out his veto, which lawmakers worry he will, that could set up a rare post-Christmas vote that gives Congress a tight time frame to try to override and get the defense bill, which passed with majority-proof votes initially, into law.
“It seems to me that what he’s doing is waiting until the 23rd,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “That’s just a suspicion that I have.”
To successfully override Trump, both the House and Senate would need to vote before noon on Jan. 3, when the 117th Congress will start.
Because the House passed the defense bill first initially, it will need to vote first, and if it falls short, the veto effort in Congress is immediately squashed.
If the House votes to override, a first for Trump, the matter goes to the Senate, where senators say they could hold a final vote on a veto override on the morning of Jan. 3 before the 117th Congress is sworn in.
Opponents of overriding the president’s veto could drag out procedural hurdles by forcing a cloture vote, requiring the override effort to initially get 60 votes, according to the Congressional Research Service. To ultimately override in the Senate, as in the House, will require two-thirds support.
The House would need to send the veto message to the Senate by Dec. 29 to overcome any procedural hurdles and finish by Jan. 3, a Democratic House aide told The Hill.
Lawmakers had hoped a strong enough vote would dissuade Trump from vetoing the bill, which passed the House 335-78 and the Senate 84-13, with GOP senators back-channelling with the president to try to get him to back down.
And they are arguing that a recent massive hack of an IT group that contracts with the government suspected to have been carried out by the Russians only strengthens their case that the bill needs to be quickly signed into law.
“This year’s national defense bill contains over two dozen provisions that would make critical progress in cybersecurity, including provisions that would help ensure the resiliency of our nation’s nuclear command and control systems,” six House Armed Services Committee Republicans, including outgoing ranking member Mac Thonberry (Texas), incoming ranking member Mike Rogers (Ala.) and GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.), said in a statement.
But Trump and the White House have doubled down on his threat several times, reiterating his complaints that it would not repeal a tech liability shield, would rename Confederate-named military bases and would put up roadblocks to Trump’s orders withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Germany.
The president also recently added an unspecified gripe that the NDAA is weak on China, despite the fact that the bill would create a $2.2 billion fund specifically to counter China, among other provisions aimed directly at Beijing. Those provisions have been a major selling point for the bill among Republicans.
“I will Veto the Defense Bill, which will make China very unhappy,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “They love it. Must have Section 230 termination, protect our National Monuments and allow for removal of military from far away, and very unappreciative, lands. Thank you!”
Asked this week to explain Trump’s China concerns, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany pointed back to his demand to repeal Section 230.
Neither the original House-passed defense bill nor the original Senate bill included a repeal or reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that gives online platforms liability protection for content posted by third parties while allowing them to make good-faith content moderation efforts.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, introduced a stand-alone bill Tuesday that would sunset Section 230 in 2023 and spoke with Trump about the legislation this week.
“If he wants to have a debate and a vote on Section 230 I think we should do that. Is that enough to prevent him from doing the veto, I don’t know,” Graham said of their conversation.
But it’s unlikely Graham’s proposal would get a vote with Congress racing to wrap up its work for the end of the year.
An attempt to override Trump’s veto would force Republicans to pick between siding with the president, who retains a tight grip on the party’s base, or helping pass a defense bill that has been signed into law for the past 59 years.
Two GOP senators, Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.), already voted against the final defense bill after supporting the Senate’s initial version. Both are members of the Armed Services Committee and considered potential 2024 presidential candidates.
“I would not vote to override,” Hawley told reporters.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is up for reelection in 2022 and has been tying himself closely to Trump, declined to say how he would handle a veto of the NDAA.
“I’m hoping he doesn’t veto,” Johnson said, adding that it is “unfortunate” that Trump had tweeted about his veto threat.
Johnson, asked again if he would override, said, “I’ve got to see what his veto message is.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hasn’t said how he would handle a veto override attempt.
A veto would likely scramble the overwhelmingly bipartisan coalitions that helped pass the bill earlier this month. While some Democrats who voted against the defense bill have said they will flip to support a veto override, leadership is also expected to lose some Republican votes.
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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has said he would vote to sustain Trump’s veto, telling reporters that he didn’t believe Republicans “vote to override a veto” of a president they’ve worked with.
Graham also signaled that, for now, he wouldn’t support a veto override unless there’s “some breakthrough” in the tech fight.
“I’m going to stick with the president and his effort to get something done on 230,” he said. “If it takes using the NDAA as leverage so be it.”