Donald Trump seemed destined to end his turbulent presidency on a sharply and divisively partisan note given his demands that Republicans back his doomed effort to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory. But he has now also set a course toward a rare intraparty fight that he is likely to lose after the House passed a $740 billion defense-spending bill by a vetoproof majority.
Trump has been regularly threatening to veto a classic “must-pass” piece of legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act. This annual law has strong bipartisan support and has been enacted with relatively little controversy every year since 1961. But for months, Trump has objected loudly to language mandating the rebranding of military installations currently named for Confederate veterans. More recently, he has insisted the defense bill include a repeal of legal protections for social-media platforms that have annoyed him by fact-checking and otherwise challenging dubious content from him and his supporters. Congressional Republicans have all but given up trying to talk him out of a veto, so a collision is imminent.
Aside from its character as bipartisan legislation, there are some specific sacred cows in the bill that make its passage politically essential, particularly for Republicans: ratification of a 3 percent military pay raise (which will go into effect whether or not a bill is passed), a variety of bonuses for troops in hazardous or specialized positions, authorization of new weapons systems, and a host of cybersecurity provisions, among many other things.
Last night, the House passed a proposed final version of the defense bill by a 335-78 margin, well over the two-thirds that would be necessary to override a veto. Forty Republicans voted “no.” The Senate is expected to vote on it this week with passage assured, according to Politico, which explains the overall dynamics within the GOP as follows:
[A]t the ebb of his power and in the waning days of his presidency, Trump has met his match in defense hawks and the annual defense bill. It has passed 59 years in a row, and even loyal Trump supporters are looking past his Twitter attacks and plotting a rebellion against a president who often seeks vengeance against those who break with him. And they’re acting like it’s no big deal.
But Trump will have some support in trying to make this a loyalty test. Just prior to the House vote, the right-wing Freedom Caucus held a presser supporting his position on the defense bill. And there will be at least some Republican senators (including that inveterate heretic on defense policy, Rand Paul) willing to make a lot of noise opposing the bill as drafted. Only four Republicans voted against the Senate’s original version of the NDAA during the summer.
There is a possibility, however, that, if Trump goes through with the ninth veto of his presidency, some Republicans who voted for the bill may refuse to support an override. The timing doesn’t help: Congress would almost certainly have to come back to Washington in the middle of the holidays to respond to a veto; nobody wants this to drag on into the next Congress, where this painstakingly negotiated legislation would go back to square one.
Since this is Trump we are talking about, there’s always a chance he will flip-flop at the last minute and withdraw the veto threat, choosing instead to agitate the air about the sanctity of military-base names and the perfidy of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. More likely, he’ll say good-bye to Congress with a nasty conflict and a final defeat.