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Trump handed defeat as Congress overrides his defense bill veto

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, arrives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, arrives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021.Samuel Corum/Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Congress handed Donald Trump a major, bipartisan defeat in the waning days of his presidency, as the Republican-led Senate voted to override his veto of a $740.5 billion defense policy bill.

It’s the first time one of Trump’s vetoes has been surmounted.

The final tally was 81 to 13, easily exceeding the two-thirds threshold needed to override a veto, with support coming from both Republicans and Democrats as it did earlier in the House. The massive annual defense authorization measure now will become law.

Trump had sought to intimidate GOP senators into voting to sustain his veto, unleashing a bitter attack on fellow Republicans as the chamber prepared to begin the override process.

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“Weak and tired Republican ‘leadership’ will allow the bad Defense Bill to pass,” Trump tweeted Dec. 29. “Negotiate a better Bill, or get better leaders, NOW!” he added.

Friday, before the final vote, Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, urged “all of our colleagues” to override Trump’s veto. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma and typically a Trump ally, called the annual defense bill “the most significant vote we have” and praised the bipartisan spirit that went into it.

The Senate vote followed the House’s 322-87 vote on Dec. 28. Senate leaders had to overcome procedural hurdles after several senators, led by Bernie Sanders of Vermont, refused to give unanimous consent to proceed to the override vote -- part of their effort to increase pandemic aid to $2,000 a person from $600. In the tangled politics of the moment, that increase has been championed by Trump and opposed by many Republicans.

The votes to override Trump’s veto reflects a widening rift between the president and some congressional Republicans, who stood by him through previous conflicts, as his influence ebbs. More GOP lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in recent weeks recognized Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election.

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‘Not an Option’

“Not once in six decades has a Congress let its differences prevent it from completing this work for our national security and our men and women who wear the uniform,” McConnell said Tuesday on the Senate floor in backing the veto override. “For the brave men and women of the United States armed forces, failure is simply not an option. So when it’s our turn in Congress to have their backs, failure is not an option either.”

Although many of Trump’s voters remain loyal to the president, a number of Republican lawmakers share concerns over his recent behavior. The split comes at a dangerous time politically for the GOP -- just days before two runoff races in Georgia that will determine control of the Senate.

Trump vetoed the annual defense measure because he wanted to attach an unrelated provision to eliminate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects technology companies from liability for most content published by their users. “A disgraceful act of cowardice and total submission by weak people to Big Tech,” Trump said in his Dec. 29 tweet.

He also took issue with the bill because it contains a provision for renaming military installations that honor Confederate generals. In his veto message, Trump called the bill a “gift” to China and Russia without clearly articulating his reasoning.

Troop Benefits

The defense bill, H.R. 6395, is considered must-pass legislation because it authorizes not only billions of dollars for weapons systems, but also benefits for U.S. troops. The measure would increase hazardous duty pay to $275 from $250 per month.

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It’s a point of bipartisan pride for members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees that the annual defense policy bill has now been enacted without fail for 60 consecutive years.

The president and others on the right have long accused social media platforms of censoring conservatives, something that the technology giants deny. While lawmakers from both parties have called for modifying or even eliminating Section 230, even Trump allies said it was the wrong place and the wrong time to wage that battle.

The defense bill authorizes $732 billion in discretionary spending for national defense, including $69 billion for overseas contingency operations. It also authorizes funding for 93 F-35 fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin Corp., the No. 1 defense contractor.

The legislation also establishes a commission to study and provide recommendations, within three years, on the removal of names, symbols, displays and monuments that honor or commemorate the Confederacy. It addresses diversity in the military ranks by requiring the removal of personal identifiers in promotion and selection pitches, a step backed by Democratic Representatives Jackie Speier of California and Anthony Brown of Maryland.

The defense measure establishes a Pacific deterrence initiative intended to counter China’s influence in the region. Congress plans to authorize $2.2 billion for the new effort designed to bolster the U.S. defense posture and weapons and alliances in the region.

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Lawmakers took aim at Russia with provisions including additional sanctions on Turkey for purchasing a Russian made missile defense system, as well as penalties on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.