Defying Trump, Lawmakers Move to Strip Military Bases of Confederate Names

WASHINGTON — Representative Don Bacon, a Republican, had a blunt message for President Trump when a White House aide called him personally early this month and asked that he abandon legislation to strip the names of Confederate leaders from military bases.

“You’re wrong — you need to change,” Mr. Bacon, a second-term Nebraskan and former Air Force brigadier general, told the official, he said in an interview. “We’re the party of Lincoln, the party of emancipation; we’re not the party of Jim Crow. We should be on the right side of this issue.”

The sharp exchange between the White House aide and Mr. Bacon, who is facing an unexpectedly difficult re-election race, reflects just how much Mr. Trump has isolated himself — even from members of his own party who rarely break with him — on an issue that has come to the forefront of the political debate amid a national outcry for racial justice.

It will take center stage on Capitol Hill this week, when the House and Senate each consider sweeping annual military bills that contain bipartisan measures mandating that the Pentagon remove Confederate names from military assets. Mr. Trump, who has sought to stoke cultural and political divisions over symbols of the Confederacy, has said he would veto any bill with such a requirement.

The disconnect has raised the prospect of a rare, election-year clash between congressional Republicans and Mr. Trump on the military bill, the measure that authorizes pay raises for American troops and is regarded as must-pass legislation. Despite the president’s unapologetic stance, most Republicans have been unwilling to defend symbols of the Confederacy, and some have warned the president not to force the first veto override of his presidency.

The House voted on Monday to begin consideration of the bill and is expected to pass it this week, as the Senate debates a similar measure slated to be approved next week.

Mr. Trump, who has positioned himself against a growing movement for racial justice, renewed his veto threat in an interview aired Sunday. Mr. Trump told Fox News’s Chris Wallace that he rejected the counsel of military leaders like Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has called for taking “a hard look” at changing the names of the bases.

“We won two world wars, two world wars, beautiful world wars that were vicious and horrible, and we won them out of Fort Bragg,” Mr. Trump said. “We won them out of all of these forts, and now they want to throw those names away.”

On Monday, Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, batted away the prospect of a veto showdown.

“He’s threatened several times to do that, but he also knows that’s the most important bill of the year,” Mr. Inhofe said in a brief interview.

The measures cruising through Congress along bipartisan lines, including Mr. Bacon’s proposal and a separate one in the Senate, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, go much further than an order issued by the Pentagon late last week that effectively banned displays of the Confederate flag on military installations around the world. Ms. Warren’s amendment would require the Pentagon to strip all military assets of names and symbols of the Confederacy within three years. Another measure in House Democrats’ military spending bill would provide the Army with $1 million to rename the installations and other assets.

Few Republicans in Congress have rallied to Mr. Trump’s side on the issue. Senate Republican leaders have moved to avoid a contentious showdown on the issue, ducking a vote on a proposal by Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, to remove Ms. Warren’s requirement and replace it with a weaker measure that would instruct the Pentagon to study the issue.

“This cancel movement seeks to divide us, not unite; to erase our history, rather than to reckon with it,” Mr. Hawley said in a speech on the Senate floor, accusing proponents of Ms. Warren’s measure of being driven by “a kind of woke fundamentalism.”

Taking such a vote on the Senate floor would have squeezed several Republicans in tight re-election battles. And Republican leaders in both chambers on Capitol Hill have been largely supportive of the effort to rename the bases.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, told The Wall Street Journal last week that he would not block the effort to rename the bases, and in an interview with a Louisville radio station, he said he didn’t “have any problem” with renaming the bases for “people who didn’t rebel against the country.” He has urged the president not to veto the bill.

“The issue of Army bases being named after Confederate generals is a legitimate concern in the times in which we live,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “I’m OK with a process that the Senate came up with. And there’s a lot of good things in this bill.”

Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, opposed the measure’s deadlines, saying that it did not give the Pentagon enough time to facilitate community discussion around the change and that the end goal should be “increased understanding and changed hearts.”

“My personal opinion is that the names of some, if not all, of these installations should be changed,” Mr. Thornberry said.