Congress delivered a stinging rebuke to President Trump during a rare New Year's Day session Friday, handing him his first veto override in the final days of his administration.
The GOP-controlled Senate voted 81-13 to override Trump’s veto of a mammoth defense bill, well above the two-thirds support necessary, underscoring the depth of disagreement between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The House voted 322-87 earlier this week to nix Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which greenlights spending levels and lays out policy for the Pentagon.
It caps off a chaotic session for Congress that started with the longest government shutdown in modern history, included an impeachment trial and is now closing in a rare rebuke of Trump. In addition to the veto fight, which was the last vote of the 116th Congress, Senate Republicans effectively killed the president’s demand for an increase in recently-passed stimulus checks, and next week Congress will ultimately reject a long-shot attempt by conservatives to hand the election to Trump.
“It’s a serious responsibility,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said about the bill on Friday. “But it’s also a tremendous opportunity: to direct our national security priorities to reflect the resolve of the American people and the evolving threats to their safety, at home and abroad.”
The veto fight over the NDAA is in many ways a culmination of years-long, deep divisions between Congress and the president when it comes to defense and national security policy, which started almost as soon as Trump took over the White House with a months-long fight over Russia sanctions.
“President Trump tried to make this vote a loyalty test and an overwhelming majority of U.S. Senators demonstrated their loyalty to the common defense and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces who defend our nation. ... This vote was undoubtedly a bipartisan rebuke of President Trump. He tried to use our troops as political pawns and distort what this bill is about. In the end, he lost," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in a statement after Friday's vote.
The president warned for months that he would veto the defense bill, which will now become law for the 60th year in a row, over language included in both the initial House and Senate bills requiring the Pentagon to change the names of Confederate-named military bases and installations.
As it became increasingly clear that Congress was moving forward with the bill, Trump also lashed out at the legislation because it did not include a repeal of Section 230, a legal shield for tech companies, which GOP lawmakers argued was not related to the defense bill.
Trump’s veto statement also took aim at other parts of the legislation, including restrictions on his ability to remove troops from Afghanistan and Germany.
“My Administration has taken strong actions to help keep our Nation safe and support our service members. I will not approve this bill, which would put the interests of the Washington, D.C. establishment over those of the American people,” he wrote.
Trump’s decision to veto the bill — which came a day after McConnell publicly said he hoped the president would back down — forced Republicans to decide in the administration’s twilight whether to stick with a bill that initially passed with veto-proof majorities or side with the president, who maintains a vise-like grip on the party’s base.
Trump, while largely focused on challenging President-elect Joe Biden's win, lashed out this week at congressional Republicans, tweeting that “weak and tired Republican ‘leadership’ will allow the bad Defense Bill to pass.”
“Negotiate a better Bill, or get better leaders, NOW! Senate should not approve NDAA until fixed!!!” he added.
More than 100 Republican lawmakers in the House ultimately broke with Trump to support the veto override earlier this week. On Friday, only seven of the Senate's 52 GOP senators voted to uphold Trump's veto: Mike Braun (Ind.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Mo.), John Kennedy (La.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.).
No senator spoke against the defense bill before the Senate voted to override the president's veto, though a handful spoke briefly in favor of it. The seven Republicans who voted "no" were the same Republicans who voted against the final NDAA last month, meaning Trump didn't pick up any GOP support to try to prevent the override after vetoing the bill.
Some Republican senators did flip their vote to support Trump's veto after they had initially supported the defense bill’s passage over the summer.
Cruz, Cotton and Hawley each initially voted for the Senate's bill in July but flipped and opposed the final version, which is worked out as a compromise between the House and Senate.
"As this massive bill was written and then rushed to a vote, some seem to have forgotten to consult with the commander in chief or recall that he has a veto power,” Cotton said during a Senate floor speech last month explaining his decision to oppose the final bill.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who supported the NDAA in both July and December, had indicated that he would oppose overriding Trump's veto but didn't vote on Friday. GOP Sens. Kelly Loeffler (Ga.) and David Perdue (Ga.), who face runoff elections on Tuesday, also didn't vote, though Perdue is in quarantine after coming in contact with an individual who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Several GOP senators told The Hill that they had not heard from Trump or the White House in the days leading up to Friday’s vote trying to sway them to vote against the override.
“I think it was more about making a statement than anything else,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.).
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said he had not heard from the White House about trying to get him to change his vote and he didn’t know of any other Senate Republicans who had heard from the administration either.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who is close to Trump, said he has "never been lobbied" by the White House or Trump on the defense bill.
"My observation and my theory on this is — I actually think this is one situation where the president was able to have it both ways. He could make his point and know that the military would still get its authorization," Cramer said.
In the House, the veto split GOP leadership, with Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican and highest-ranking GOP woman, voting to override and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sticking with Trump.
But in many ways the veto override was pre-baked.
House Democratic leadership had signaled for weeks that they expected to override Trump’s veto, marking the first time either chamber had a successful override vote. Before the NDAA fight Trump had issued eight vetoes, none of which had been successfully challenged by the House or Senate.
And McConnell took much of the drama out of the Senate action when he signaled earlier this week that he believed he had the votes to override Trump’s veto.
"For the brave men and women of the United States armed forces, failure is simply not an option. So when it's our time in Congress to have their backs, failure is not an option either," McConnell said. "I would urge my Republican colleagues to support this legislation one more time when we vote."
Including Friday, Congress has overridden 112 vetoes throughout U.S. history. The last time a president’s veto was overridden was in September 2016 when then-President Obama opposed a bill allowing families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia.