Despite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill

© Getty Images Despite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill

A must-pass defense bill is in potential jeopardy – again – as President Trump ties the legislation to his crusade against social media companies.

Lawmakers moved ahead Wednesday with finalizing the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) despite a threat by Trump the previous day to veto the legislation.

Trump has threatened to block the bill unless it repeals Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a key liability protection for online tech platforms. The president previously threatened to veto the bill over language requiring the Pentagon to rename Confederate-named military bases.

But lawmakers had already closed in on a deal before Trump’s latest threat that included requiring the bases be renamed and excluded Section 230 reforms. Congressional negotiators began signing the compromise bill, known as a conference report, Wednesday evening without any language on Section 230, a House aide confirmed.

If Trump follows through on his veto, it is unclear if Republicans are willing to override him, risking 2020 being the first time in 60 years an NDAA is not signed into law. At least one Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), has committed to overturning a hypothetical veto.

“One way or the other we have to pass the defense authorization bill,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican. “There will be enormous support for getting the defense authorization bill passed and hopefully signed into law.”

Thune said he doesn’t “think the defense bill is the place to litigate” Section 230 but also said he doesn’t know if it will pass with a veto-proof majority and was “not going to speculate” on that.

Congress has little time left in its calendar to pass the bill and override a possible veto. The House is scheduled to leave town Dec. 11, giving lawmakers just six more days when both chambers will be in session this year. Because a new Congress starts in January, lawmakers would have to start from scratch on the defense bill if they do not finish this year.

The NDAA is considered must-pass legislation because it authorizes a slew of routine and important Pentagon programs, as well as a pay raise and hazard pay for troops.

“For 59 straight years, the NDAA has passed because members of Congress and presidents of both parties have set aside their own policy objectives and partisan preferences and put the needs of our military personnel and America’s security first,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas), the top Republican on the panel, said in a joint statement formally announcing the compromise bill.

“The time has come to do that again,” they added.

The deal reached by lawmakers requires bases named after Confederate figures to be changed, separate from talks over Section 230, a Democratic House aide told The Hill.

The deal reached by lawmakers mirrors language the Senate approved in July, House aides said. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who authored the Senate language, also confirmed Wednesday that her language is in the compromise NDAA.

The Senate version mandated changes in three years and created a commission tasked with developing a plan to “remove names, symbols, displays, monuments or paraphernalia that commemorate the Confederate States of America or any person who served voluntarily with the Confederate States of America.”

Both the House and Senate versions of the NDAA included language requiring the Pentagon to rename military bases and other property bearing Confederate monikers. The House version would have required changes in one year.

The language, which most prominently would affect 10 Army bases named after Confederate military officers, was added to the bills with bipartisan support amid nationwide racial justice protests that reinvigorated an examination of America’s legacy of slavery.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany highlighted Trump’s past objection to Warren’s language on Confederate-named bases, but said she was unsure if his position has changed amid the Section 230 fight.

As formal negotiations on the defense bill kicked off last month, chief of staff Mark Meadows floated the idea that Trump could drop his objections to renaming bases if lawmakers agree to repeal Section 230. Lawmakers threw cold water on the idea because Section 230 is outside the jurisdiction of the bill.

The 1996 law, which has little if anything to do with national security or defense, gives online platforms liability protection for content posted by third parties while allowing them to make good-faith content moderation efforts.

Trump and his Republican allies argue that Section 230 allows social media companies to discriminate against conservative content, a claim that has not been substantiated.

The president’s fixation with the law, considered a bedrock of the modern internet, started in May after Twitter added labels to several of his posts alleging without evidence that mail-in voting is fraudulent.

Soon after the first label was applied, Trump signed an executive order targeting the law. That order is likely to be either defeated in the courts or simply ignored by President-elect Joe Biden.

“We’ve all been talking about this for quite some time,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters Wednesday when asked about the veto threat. “It’s certainly odd that big social media companies seem to be censoring conservative points of view, and we don’t like that one bit.”

The administration is looking for a “much, much more limited liability shield,” Kudlow added.

Pressed on how the issue is relevant to the NDAA, Kudlow said, “It’s a vehicle.”

“Sometimes you hang things on large trees,” he added of the NDAA, one of the last major bills expected to get a vote during Trump’s presidency.

McEnany added in a later press briefing that Trump is “serious” about his veto threat, saying he will “put the pressure on Congress to step up on this.”

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are imploring Trump not to torpedo the defense bill over an unrelated issue.

The showdown is forcing Republicans into a balancing act with control of the Senate in the next Congress hinging on two Georgia runoffs in January. Failing to pass a bill that supports the troops could open Republicans up to attack from opponents, but bucking Trump risks an attack from him.

Inhofe said he told Trump that Section 230 should be left out of the NDAA.

“First of all, 230 has nothing to do with the military. And I agree with his sentiments; we ought to do away with 230, but you can’t do it in this bill. That’s not a part of the bill,” Inhofe told reporters.

But Inhofe also said he does not know if Trump will ultimately sign the bill.

“We just had an honest disagreement, very friendly,” Inhofe said of his talk with Trump.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told reporters Wednesday he had been tapped by the White House to help devise a potential Section 230 amendment to the NDAA.

A spokesperson for the lawmaker told The Hill the proposed text was very similar to his Online Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Act. That bill would restrict the content that platforms can act on by striking the “otherwise objectionable” clause from the law.

Some staunch Trump allies are backing his play. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) tweeted he “cannot support” the NDAA because it doesn’t contain Section 230 reforms but “DOES contain Elizabeth Warren’s social engineering amendment.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he was supportive of Trump “using all the leverage he can” to reform Section 230.

Democrats, meanwhile, chastised Trump for endangering the defense bill over what they view as a personal vendetta.

“To be clear, Mr. President, Section 230 repeal wasn’t included in the House OR Senate version of the NDAA,” Smith tweeted Wednesday. “You’re mad at Twitter. We all know it. You’re willing to veto the defense bill over something that has everything to do with your ego, and nothing to do with defense.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who co-authored Section 230, called Trump’s threat “pathetic.”

“I’d like to start for the Blazers, but it’s not going to happen either,” Wyden said in a statement. “It is pathetic that Trump refuses to help unemployed workers, while he spends his time tweeting unhinged election conspiracies and demanding Congress repeal the foundation of free speech online.”

Jordain Carney contributed.