Trump’s veto threat on defense bill tests Republican loyalty

Daniel Flatley, Roxana Tiron and Erik Wasson

A Senate vote on overriding President Donald Trump’s expected veto of a massive defense bill may prove to be a final test of the Republican party’s loyalty to the commander-in-chief.

Senator Jim Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday he expects his chamber would return to hold a vote if the House of Representatives overrides the president on the annual defense authorization bill. Both the House and Senate passed it by veto-proof majorities, though at least some GOP members plan to change their vote if it comes to what would be the first override of Trump’s waning term.

President Donald Trump, left, and Senate Armed Services Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla.

Trump has repeatedly said he’d veto the $740.5 billion bill, raising complaints including a demand to include an unrelated provision stripping legal protections from social-media companies over most of their user-generated content. He also made an unspecified allegation that China would “love” the bill. He tweeted his latest threat Thursday morning.

“I was sorry to see that he tweeted that,” said Inhofe. He also said that until Thursday he had thought there was a chance Republicans could persuade Trump not to veto the bill.

The president has until Dec. 23, when the legislation would otherwise become law, to follow through on his threat. Congress would then need to act before the end of its current term, which runs out Jan. 3. The House voted for the bill 335-78 and the Senate 84-13 earlier this month.

Inhofe told reporters he suspects Trump is waiting for the final day until he vetoes. He expected the Senate would return from its year-end break and gather on Jan. 3 in time to vote on the override. John Thune, the No. 2 GOP senator, has also said the chamber would schedule such a vote if the House – which goes first because that’s where the bill originated – defeats the president’s veto.

Some of the president’s most loyal allies, including Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, say they support Trump on using the NDAA, as it’s known, as leverage to get something done on Section 230. That’s the federal statute that shields internet and social media companies from liability connected with user-posted content on their platforms, which Trump wants repealed.

Trump has repeatedly attacked social media companies, including Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc., for removing his posts that made false or misleading claims.

Graham Loyal

“I’m going to stick with the president and his effort to get something done on 230,” said Graham, who didn’t vote on the bill earlier this month. “If it takes using the NDAA as leverage, so be it.”

Other Republicans, including Inhofe, contend that the defense bill wasn’t the proper vehicle to address the issue. The NDAA typically passes every year with significant bipartisan support.

In addition to pay raises for troops, the defense bill includes a variety of defense-related measures, including sanctions on a natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.

“There’s nothing we can do on 230,” Inhofe said. He also said that if Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants to address that statute, then he “ought to be doing it himself” through his panel.

McCarthy Switches

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said earlier this month that the House would definitely schedule an override vote. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is among those who have said he wouldn’t override the president after having backed the bill previously.

While Trump hasn’t specified the China connection to his veto threat, one Chinese company has made favorable comments on the bill. The legislation left out a ban on federal government purchases of Chinese drone technology.

“We are pleased to see that the NDAA conferees took seriously the many concerns voiced by federal agencies, American companies, industry groups, universities and end users – all of which have indicated a country of origin ban would have serious, unintended consequences,” SZ DJI Technology Co., one of the largest makers of drones, said in a statement on Dec. 4.