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Congress Heads Toward Clash With Trump Over Removal Of Confederate Symbols

Sen. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at a May 6 hearing. The Oklahoma Republican's panel has voted to form a commission on removing Confederate names from Army installations.
Greg Nash
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Sen. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at a May 6 hearing. The Oklahoma Republican's panel has voted to form a commission on removing Confederate names from Army installations.

Updated at 3:46 p.m. ET

Members of Congress put themselves on a collision course with the White House on Thursday over the politics of America's Confederate legacy.

The Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee adopted an amendment that would create a commission charged with renaming Army installations that bear Confederate names and removing their Confederate symbols.

A bipartisan team of House members, both veterans, proposed something similar.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., reiterated her call for members of Congress to enact legislation that would purge the Capitol of Confederate statues. The speaker told reporters she didn't believe she has the power to do so herself — effectively daring the Republicans who control the Senate to go along.

"Believe me, if I had more authority we'd have fewer of those statues around," Pelosi told reporters Thursday.

The speaker can move statues around within the Capitol but not take them out of it, she said.

Democrats — led by Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi — have legislation to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol. Pelosi said Democrats want to remove 11 statues but specifically referred to those of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens at a press conference.

Davis was the president and Stephens the vice president of the Confederacy.

"Treason," Pelosi said. "They committed treason against the United States, and their statues are still here because their states put them here."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted that the statues in the Capitol come from the 50 states. He argued they should decide which ones they send to Washington.

"Every state is allowed two statues. They can trade them out at any time," McConnell told a pool reporter. "I think that's the appropriate way to deal way to deal with the statue issue. The states make that decision."

The bases question

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said on Thursday he isn't opposed to renaming military installations. Other Republicans said they too were open to moving ahead with a process at the federal level to remove the old Confederate names.

Even so, those proposals, if enacted by both chambers, would require the signature of President Trump — which may not be forthcoming.

The White House dug in this week on standing by the current names of a number of Army bases named for Confederate commanders, including Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate army, Braxton Bragg and others.

Trump wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that he considered the door closed to renaming military installations — after Defense Secretary Mark Esper had appeared to open it — and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany reiterated Wednesday that the administration believes the names should stay.

The amendment about the Confederate base names adopted by the Senate committee on Thursday was offered by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat. It's part of a massive annual bill that sets policy for the military — one that, because of its size and importance, passes nearly every year.

Supporters hope the importance of the overall bill means that if the amendment is still in place when it reaches Trump, he'll overlook his objections and sign it into law.

The president suggested Thursday he opposed the amendment but stopped short of declaring he'd veto the entire National Defense Authorization Act over it.

Implementing excisions

The Senate bill would start a three-year clock during which the Defense Department would be required to remove Confederate names and symbols from bases, ships, aircraft, streets and other property.

There are 10 Army bases named for Confederate commanders. Many of them received their names around World War I following a War Department decision that Northern installations could be named for Union leaders and that ones in the South could be named for Confederates.

At least one Navy warship, the cruiser USS Chancellorsville, is named for a Confederate victory.

The Defense Department has resisted calls for renaming in the past, but the comments by Esper and members of Congress in both parties this week suggested that an earlier consensus might be shifting.

Reps. Don Bacon, R-Neb., and Anthony Brown, D-Md., — veterans of the Air Force and Army, respectively — said their proposal to rename installations Thursday would do so quicker than the Senate amendment: within one year.

Brown and Bacon said they thought it was past time for the military to clear away Confederate trappings.

"The symbols and individuals that our military honors matter. It matters to the black soldier serving at an installation honoring the name of a leader who fought to preserve slavery and oppression. It matters to the culture of inclusivity and unity needed for our military to get the job done," Brown said.

Said Bacon: "Now is the time to embrace our values 'that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.' "

Shifting climate

Political figures in Washington are scrambling to strike the right note in responding to the national movement that has followed the death of a Minneapolis man, George Floyd, at the hands of police.

The wave of demonstrations that followed the killing of Floyd not only reignited long-simmering anger about law enforcement and race, but other lingering questions about the status of names, statues and symbols of the old Confederacy.

Trump and Republicans have said they want to go along with prospective legislation that could reform police practices around the United States, and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., is working on a bill now.

The president has drawn the line on the Confederate names, however. And at least one senator — Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., whose panel adopted the amendment calling for a renaming commission — said he thought individual states should be involved.

This is just a first step in the process, he said, and "we have a long ways to go."

"I think that we should have state input in this thing ... and I think it will be ... by the time we get to conference and everything else," Inhofe told reporters. "Let states determine if they want to rename things in their state."

The Army bases are federal installations run by the Defense Department. Ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said on Thursday that the renaming commission would consult with locals in assessing how to rename the bases.

"There was some dissenting votes, but it was largely a bipartisan effort, and frankly I think it will put us in the position of carefully and thoughtfully looking at this issue," Reed told reporters on a conference call Thursday.

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.