A legislative fight over whether to rename military installations named after Confederate generals is quickly dividing Senate Republicans and creating campaign headaches.
GOP strategists warn that a misstep could prove costly, giving GOP senators heartburn in a year when they have to defend 23 seats, compared to just 12 for Democrats, who are growing increasingly confident of their chances to win back the majority in November.
The hot-button issue took shape last week when a group of Republicans led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called for modifying an amendment sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that would direct the secretary of Defense to remove any commemoration of the Confederate States of America from all assets — with the exception of grave markers. The revised provision was later approved during a markup of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), with some GOP support.
Cotton ultimately voted against the amendment by voice vote when Warren didn't accept all of his proposed changes.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a rising conservative star, is now leading an effort to weaken language that he said caught many of his GOP colleagues by surprise.
“This was unexpected, I think. A lot of people did not know this was even going to be voted on,” Hawley said. “And then their initial impression was, ‘Oh, this is just a study.’ They don’t realize that actually no, as Sen. Warren said, it’s mandatory language.”
Hawley’s push could put some Republicans in a bind, particularly those who supported the measure behind closed doors, even though Warren’s amendment was adopted by voice vote, meaning there’s no official record of which GOP members voted for it.
Hawley said he raised his objections in the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing room last week and asked for a roll-call vote but had his request denied.
It’s an especially charged topic for Republicans from states that were part of the Confederacy, such as Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), who faces a tough road to reelection and whose state is home to Fort Bragg, named after Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg.
Tillis was one of several Republicans who raised concerns about Warren’s amendment during the committee markup. Other vulnerable Republican incumbents, Sens. Martha McSally (Ariz.) and Joni Ernst (Iowa), said they voted for the measure.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who is also up for reelection but in a deep-red state, spoke up in favor of the amendment behind closed doors.
Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist, said the debate over renaming military institutions is politically tricky for Republicans because it divides their base more so than Democrats.
“I think it probably splits more Republican primary voters,” he said, warning it could be a dangerous issue. “I don’t think it’s something I would want to pin my political future on.”
"I don't know any Republicans or Democrats that think slavery was a good thing. But it seems like the line to me is: Do not under any circumstances rewrite history," Saltsman added. “You’re going to make a big group of people mad either way, and so you need to pick where you are on this and stand kind of tall on it.”
Even senators from the same state are taking different positions. Whereas Ernst voted for Warren’s amendment, Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Monday he would likely support Hawley’s change to the provision.
“I don’t want to rewrite history,” Grassley said, while acknowledging he had “not absolutely made up [his] mind.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) agrees with Hawley that Warren’s amendment should be softened to give the secretary of Defense discretion over whether to change base names or not. He also wants to give state and local authorities direct say on proposed changes in their communities.
But the biggest driving force for preserving the status quo is President Trump, who last week urged Senate Republicans “not to fall for this!”
Inhofe said he’s spoken extensively to Trump and that the president favors removing the mandate to change base names, effectively tying the Defense secretary’s hands.
Asked how Republicans would resolve the issue, Inhofe replied: “I wish I had that answer.”
He said there are several ways to change Warren’s amendment from stating the Defense secretary “shall” implement a plan to change base and installation names submitted by a special commission to “may,” providing significant latitude.
“You could do an amendment on the floor, you could do it in conference. There’s a lot of doing that. It’s not insurmountable,” he said.
Other Republicans, however, are warning that it could be very difficult to change Warren’s language, setting up a standoff with Trump. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters last week that Trump would veto the $740 billion defense authorization bill if it required the renaming of bases.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said Monday that changing Warren’s language would require 60 votes on the Senate floor unless a deal can be reached with Democrats to allow an amendment to pass with a simple majority.
With Republicans holding a slim 53-47 majority, getting 60 votes for changing the amendment appears unlikely given the GOP divisions.
An agreement with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is also considered unlikely.
“When it’s in the base bill, it becomes a much heavier lift on the floor. It sounds like we have some members who are maybe going to attempt to do that. We’ll see. It’s generated a lot of discussion, and we’ll see where that leads,” Thune said.
Thune said the defense policy bill will probably come to the Senate floor the week of June 29. The preliminary procedural motions, however, could come to the floor at the end of next week, he said.
Changing or removing Warren’s amendment in a Senate-House conference committee would also be a difficult task because the House version of the defense bill is expected to include language similar to Warren’s provision.
Reps. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), an African American Army veteran, and Don Bacon (R-Neb.), an Air Force veteran, are introducing legislation to create a commission within a year to rename bases and other military property.
“Removing these names is another step in an honest accounting of our history and an expression that we continue to strive to form a more perfect union,” Brown said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun last week.
Brown’s office says he will propose an amendment to the Defense authorization bill when the House Armed Services Committee considers its version July 1.
Traditionally, when both chambers pass bills containing highly similar provisions, they are kept in the final version that goes to the president’s desk.
The debate is expected to heat up over the next few weeks as the Senate defense bill makes its way to the floor for a vote. For many opponents of Warren’s amendment, the concern involves worries about a slippery slope toward broader renaming efforts.
Greg Weiner, an associate professor of political science at Assumption University in Massachusetts, argued there’s a big difference between the Founding Fathers, who owned slaves, and Confederate generals.
“Many of our constitutional framers — [George] Washington and [James] Madison, among others — held views on enslavement that are repugnant to us today. But we celebrate them for other reasons and believe, in the balance, that their virtues outweigh their sins and make them worthy of enduring honor,” he said.