Senate Passes Defense Bill, Shrugging Trump Threat of Veto

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaks during a Tuesday news conference at the Capitol in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Setting the stage for a final veto showdown to close out President Donald Trump’s single term, the Republican-led Senate voted 84-13 Friday in favor of a $740 billion defense-spending bill.

Trump is expected to veto the bill over various faults he finds in it, chief among them a provision forming a federally backed commission devoted to renaming and removing military installations named after darlings of the Confederacy. Trump has called the maneuver an affront to the nation’s history.

With a legacy inexorably tied to his prolific Twitter use, the outgoing president has faulted lawmakers for passing the more-than-4,000-page defense package without a measure that would repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

A longstanding telecommunications law, Section 230 gives legal cover to media companies like Twitter or Facebook from lawsuits if a third party uses its platform to post content that is obscene, hate-based or otherwise objectionable. The law does not moderate content nor force platforms to moderate their content.

Trump nonetheless has insisted publicly for weeks this is precisely what it does, despite such language not being present anywhere in the statute.

The president’s disdain for the law and his conflation of its meaning and application ultimately resulted in an executive order issued in May aimed at “preventing online censorship.” The order instructed the attorney general to develop proposals that would ostensibly put the Department of Justice in the driver’s seat to shape the contours of online content moderation.

At the core of the defense bill is the White House order to the Pentagon last month to begin accelerating troop-reduction levels in Iraq and Afghanistan to about 2,500 soldiers per nation. The deadline for reduction is no later than January 15. The proposed drawdown has been met with sharp criticism from all sides in Washington, and with most lawmakers saying it must be done only with the greatest finesse.

As is typical among most Republican leadership, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been against Trump’s call for a troop reduction, saying regularly that it poses a threat to national security interests and might embolden terrorists in and around Taliban strongholds.

Proponents of the withdrawal, on the other hand, argue it is the necessary next step to winding down wars in the region that have continued unabated for nearly 20 years.

In a bid to stall the bill’s passage 24 hours earlier, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul objected to a provision in the bill for troop-force levels sponsored by Congresswoman Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, and Congressman Jason Crow, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who is a Colorado Democrat.

The measure mandates the Pentagon submit a report to Congress, unclassified but with an option to classify, that itemizes the risks of drawing down troops below 8,000 and 4,000 servicemembers.

Such a report would feature details about the U.S. plan moving forward in the region, along with include updated intelligence on any ongoing hostage threats posed to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan. Once the report is in Congress’ hands, then a drawdown would be approved.

Though Senator Paul argued before its passage that the reporting requirement encroached on the executive branch and was born from partisan anger at Trump, Paul nonetheless appeared in the Senate chambers Friday and presided over a motion to invoke cloture — or stop debate — on the legislation.

Notably, the same provision that Paul called a personal jab at Trump from his opponents would also apply when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in next month.

It is expected that the Senate will be able and willing to override any attempt from President Donald Trump’s to strong-arm the body. Earlier this week, the House approved the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act with a veto-proof majority.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California speaks during a Thursday news conference at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Senate allots the commander-in-chief just 10 days to sign a bill into law before remitting it to Congress. This gives Trump some chance, however, to employ a pocket veto: He could hang onto the bill, essentially, “in his pocket,” and run down the time, forcing lawmakers to return to Washington on short notice to hold another vote to override him.

Other measures included in the package passed Friday are a 3% pay increase for members of the military; provision of a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment to active-duty and reserve members; and increases to paid-leave benefits for federal employees — a welcome move in the still-raging pandemic.

The bill also features changes to cyber policy for the military. One provision approved by the House and Senate moves reporting requirements from the Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. The body evaluates how to improve U.S. defense through advanced artificial intelligence technology. Though part of the department’s chief information office’s purview, Friday’s passage will move it to that of the secretary of defense.

Relatedly, the 2021 aid bill also includes legislation known as the AI Initiative Act that would stand up a new outfit known as the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Office under the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

One measure that did not make it into the defense bill involved a government-wide ban on the purchase of Chinese drone technology.

An aide to the Senate Armed Services Committee said Friday that there are “serious concerns” about Chinese-made drones which is why the Department of Defense was banned in last year’s package from making those transactions with China.

Senior research fellows at the Heritage Foundation Lora Ries and John Venable said in an op-ed published in The Hill this week that one would think banning federal agencies from using Chinese drones would be an “easy lift.”

“While there’s a small chance Congress could still separately pass the drone legislation, any action will likely shift to the executive branch,” they wrote.

There are multiple policies built into the bill intended to serve as a deterrent to aggression from China. One such measure includes an infusion of nearly $7 billion to prop up the department’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative. The initiative creates new reporting requirements, including one that requires the Secretary of Defense to inform Congress each year how it plans to fund activities meant to give the U.S. military an advantage.

As for the commission established under NDAA to begin the removal and renaming of Confederate military ships, bases and buildings, once the bill is enacted, the Defense Department will have 60 days and $2 million to stand up the eight-person review team. The first briefing before Congress will fall in October 2021.

Anti-money laundering legislation is also included courtesy of Democratic Senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama as well as Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota.

The Illicit Cash Act — short for Improving Laundering Laws and Increasing Comprehensive Information Tracking of Criminal Activity in Shell Holdings Act — could significantly curb the flow of corrupt transactions. That measure is the first of its kind that would force the real owners of shell companies to disclose their identity to the Treasury Department if they wish to do businesses with U.S. banks.

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