WASHINGTON – The Senate on Friday voted to turn a $741 billion defense authorization bill into law over President Donald Trump’s objections, delivering the first successful veto override of his presidency in the waning days of his administration.
The 81-13 vote in the Senate, just days after the House also voted in overwhelming numbers to back the legislation, was one of two rare rebukes of Trump on Friday from Republican lawmakers.
Ahead of the vote on rejecting the president’s veto, Senate Republicans blocked a Trump-endorsed effort to increase the size of stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000.
The move on checks prompted an angry response from the president. “Pathetic!!!” Trump tweeted. “Now they want to give people ravaged by the China Virus $600, rather than the $2000 which they so desperately need. Not fair, or smart!”
Trump’s last-minute push for larger pandemic relief checks had aligned him with Senate Democrats, who seized on the president’s support to advocate for the increased payments, at a total cost of $464 billion.
“The Senate can start off 2021 by really helping the American people,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “We can start off 2021 by sending $2,000 checks to struggling American families to carry them through the darkest and final days of this pandemic.”
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to bring the package passed by the House to the Senate floor, dismissing it as “socialism for rich people.”
For months, Trump’s objections to the defense bill cast a shadow over negotiations between the House and Senate over the measure, despite the fact that veto-proof, bipartisan majorities had voted in favor of earlier versions of the legislation.
In particular, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that lawmakers would have to excise provisions ordering the removal of Confederate names from bases in order to pass the bill. But by early December, Inhofe gave up his protest and on Friday, he cheered the passage of the defense bill over Trump’s objections.
The veto override also came as Senate GOP leaders were urging rank-and-file Republicans not to join an effort to contest the 2020 election results when Congress meets Jan. 6 to certify the electoral college. Earlier this week, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., announced he would object to the results, delighting Trump and paving the way for others in the Senate to join him.
While GOP leaders have said they will let members vote their conscience, they also signaled their disquiet. “I don’t think anybody is anxious to do this,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters Friday, adding that “in the end I don’t think it changes anything.”
The strong bipartisan majorities supporting the defense bill in both chambers represented a significant rebuke of the president, as it contains several repudiations of his policies as commander in chief.
The bill contains new restrictions on how much of the military’s construction budget the president may move by emergency order – a direct response to Trump’s efforts to divert billions of the Pentagon’s dollars toward the border wall. It also limits the president’s ability to draw down troop levels in Germany, South Korea and Afghanistan – a move Trump had planned over the objections of members of his own party.
In his veto statement last month, Trump included the measure’s restrictions on troop deployments high on his list of grievances with the legislation. He also objected to the bill’s mandate to the Pentagon to change the names of installations honoring members of the Confederacy. And he complained that the legislation did not include a repeal of a completely unrelated law – Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – that gives technology companies certain liability protections from content third parties post to their websites.
Trump has taken aim at Section 230 as part of a larger campaign against social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google, which he has accused of harboring anti-conservative bias.
Both Democrats and Republicans agree that Section 230 is flawed and in need of modification, but most lawmakers have bristled at Trump’s efforts to repeal it as part of the defense bill.
In recent days, as the debate over stimulus checks threatened to hamper the defense bill override, McConnell sought to short-circuit the debate by tying any increased checks to a repeal of Section 230 and a commission to examine the 2020 election. Neither that measure nor the original House-passed bill was ever brought to a floor vote in the Senate. The combination, radioactive to Democrats, quickly divided whatever support existed for the $2,000 checks proposal along political lines.
The National Defense Authorization Act is now the first such bill in 60 years to become law by a congressional override vote, instead of the president’s signature.
The defense bill also establishes new mechanisms for countering China and cyber threats. It creates a Pacific Deterrence Initiative to bolster efforts to counter China in Asia, with an emphasis on containing Chinese maritime forces. That initiative is modeled on a measure Congress established in 2015 to counter Russian aggression.
The legislation also establishes a new cybersecurity director position to better coordinate such activities government-wide. That effort follows a major breach of private companies and U.S. government agencies, including the Treasury and State departments, by Russian hackers working for the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency.
Trump has dismissed the defense legislation as a “gift” to China, complaining that it does not do enough to encourage the development of next-generation 5G networks in the United States.
The bill withholds final approval from Ligado, a company that recently won permission from the Federal Communications Commission to build such networks using radio frequencies that the Pentagon has warned are dangerously close to bandwidth it uses for sensitive military operations. The White House was pushing the Pentagon to launch a spectrum-leasing program this year in order to foster the development of a nationwide 5G network.