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Lawmakers Leverage Defense Bill To Address Police Reform, Racial Injustice

A bridge over I 185 marks the entrance to the U.S. Army's Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. It is one of the 10 Army bases name after a Confederate official and Congress is considering a bill to change those names.
John Bazemore
A bridge over I 185 marks the entrance to the U.S. Army's Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. It is one of the 10 Army bases name after a Confederate official and Congress is considering a bill to change those names.

Maryland Democratic Rep. Anthony Brown is African American, and as an Army combat veteran he knows first hand about the military's tributes to the Confederacy.

Brown served at four of the 10 Army installations named for Confederate officers.

"I went to flight school at Fort Rucker. I learned to jump out of airplanes at Fort Benning. I deployed to Iraq from Fort Bragg," the House Democrat says, respectively, of the bases in Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina. He also spent time at Fort Hood in Texas.

Now, Brown is leading the charge in the House to rename those installations. This month, a House panel adopted his bipartisan measure, which also looks to remove other Confederate tributes from the military, in the defense bill.

"I grew up not knowing about the savagery of slavery," Brown, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said while introducing his amendment. "But I know today, and America knows today, that these installations are named after officers that upheld that peculiar institution that inflicted so much pain and suffering on Black people in America."

The Confederate symbols are embedded throughout the military. For example, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., wants to see such honors gone from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in his district, which includes building and street names and paintings for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

"You will see the House, with bipartisan support, pass a defense bill that includes the long overdue requirement to stop honoring traitors to United States Constitution," Maloney predicts.

It's part of a larger theme that will play into larger focus for the traditionally bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which is entering its 60th year. Both the full House and Senate are slated to debate the annual legislation next week, including a slew of proposals on use of force, discrimination and diversity in the ranks.

It comes after Congress failed to reach a consensus last month on a police reform bill triggered by national outcry following the death of George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis police custody in May. Now, some are eyeing the defense bill as a chance to revive that debate.

One of those lawmakers, Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, is betting that President Trump's struggling poll numbers will give Republicans the boost they need to join forces.

"I believe that by putting these into the NDAA, and the closer we actually get to the election, especially once senators... see Trump's numbers are bad, that maybe they'll actually end up siding with us and and pass these reforms," Gallego said.

Defense bill could enact police, racial injustice reforms

For years, Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz has been working to limit what military weapons get passed on to police departments.

Now, he has more company: California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris and Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are joining Schatz to try to add the proposal to the defense bill. It will get a debate next week on the Senate floor.

"It only recently became a mainstream issue as we see tear gas being used on peaceful protesters and police departments being armed with things like armor- piercing bullets and bayonets," Schatz told NPR from his home state. "There's a recognition that we are increasingly militarizing our police force and it doesn't make anyone safer. It doesn't make our police, women and men safer, and it certainly doesn't make communities safer."

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine says since the upper chamber didn't get to take up a police reform bill, this will be the first opportunity for some of his colleagues to take a position on this issue.

Last month, Democrats blocked Republican South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott from bringing his proposal to the floor, saying the measure fell short. The Senate GOP, in turn, declined to take up a House Democratic plan.

"I think we'll get into it on the floor and have meaningful votes on on racial justice topics that the nation needs to see the Senate addressing," Kaine said.

Already, Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, got his bipartisan provision into the defense bill to prohibit the use of troops for peaceful protests. It's an effort to respond to a threat by Trump during demonstrations to invoke the so-called Insurrection Act.

On the House side, Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar tried to take a different approach than Kaine's to addressing the Insurrection Act threat. Her measure would require Congressional approval before the president can deploy troops in such cases.

The measure failed in committee, so now she's tweaking it to gain new supporters for full House floor debate next week.

"President Trump threatened to, in my view, abuse his authority and send the military into American communities, communities where there was tremendous pain," Escobar said. "It's never a bad thing to create added transparency and to ensure that Congress, as a co-equal branch of government, is at least playing somewhat of a role in major decisions like sending the military into an American community."

A presidential veto threat hangs over bill

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the first to gain traction for her plan to rename military bases named for Confederates by including the provision in the defense bill.

"The tens of thousands of Americans protesting the appalling killings of Black men and women are calling upon us, on all of us, not just to say the words 'Black lives matter' but to take a tangible step toward making it true," Warren recently said on the Senate floor.

But recently, President Trump attacked Warren and threatened to veto the legislation if her provision remains intact. Before the veto threat, some GOP members had already expressed support.

"I can only speak for myself on this issue. If it's appropriate to take another look at these names, I'm personally okay with that and I'm a descendant of a Confederate veteran myself," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters last month.

And some Republican senators have since reiterated their support for the Warren amendment, such as Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, or urged passage despite it, including North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer.

They are buoyed in part by Trump's own military leaders, who are seeking their own related reforms.

"There is no place in our Armed Forces for manifestations or symbols of racism bias or discrimination," Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee this month.

This, as House Republican co-sponsors have signed onto Brown's amendment to rename the bases — which would give the Defense Department one year to make the changes versus three years under the Senate version.

One of those co-sponsors, Nebraska GOP Rep. Don Bacon, voted for the amendment a day after Trump's veto threat. Ahead of the vote, the Air Force veteran noted the bases were named for Confederates to appease governments of the South during the Jim Crow era.

"I think it's disrespectful to have names of bases of folks who violated their oath, led a civil war that led to 600,000 people being killed, and for the cause of slavery," Bacon said. "I think we could do better."

There's plenty at stake: the defense bill includes new funding for military hardware and priorities for a national defense strategy, an annual pay raise for servicemembers and boosts in troop levels. And there's an additional wave of provisions to address racial injustice concerns.

California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, is pushing a measure to make violent extremism a military crime and another to create a special inspector general focused on discrimination.

Brown is also leading a provision to establish a "Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council," which would include a Chief Diversity Officer. Other efforts would require a Pentagon study of minority representation at military academies and boost diversity for selection boards that decide promotions.

Maloney says Republicans will face a big test for this year's legislation and whether they'll follow Trump's lead.

The defense bill has often been approved by super majorities in both chambers, and that margin could especially be key this year. Two-thirds of the House and Senate would be needed to override a potential veto.

"If we don't have a defense bill this year, it will be because the president feels so strongly about honoring the leaders of a rebellion against the United States on behalf of racism and slavery," Maloney said. "That's up to him. Whether my Republican colleagues want to follow him down that dark alley is up to them."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.