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Trump vetoes national defense spending bill; undermines security, Tester says

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, called President Donald Trump’s veto of the national defense spending bill on Wednesday a political stunt that threatens to undermine national security. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Donald Trump made good on his vow Wednesday to veto the 2021 national defense spending bill, queuing up a showdown in Congress where a supermajority of both the House and Senate could override him.

The Senate passed the bill — which has made it through Congress successfully for 60 years — 84-13 on December 11.

Slighting the $740 billion bill as a “gift to China and Russia,” Trump remarked this afternoon in a statement from the Office of the Press Secretary that it failed to include sufficient national security measures or provisions that “respect our veterans and our military’s history and contradicts my efforts by my administration to America first in our national security and foreign policy actions.”

Sen. Jon Tester said the president’s move puts the nation’s defense at risk  and called it little more than a political stunt.

“This political stunt undermines our national security, defense installations in Montana and across the globe, and it delays the delivery of critical care and benefits for our servicemembers and veterans — particularly those suffering and dying from conditions associated with their exposure to Agent Orange,” Tester said.

“Democrats and Republicans came together to overwhelmingly pass this critical legislation earlier this year—just as Congress has done for more than fifty years. Now we must move quickly in a bipartisan manner to override this veto, provide for our national defense, and deliver for our troops, veterans, and their families.”

The basis for the veto is chiefly tied to two factors, the first being a provision that creates a federal commission aimed at renaming and removing military installations named after Confederate heroes. Trump has been insistent that attempts to modify the names of sites honoring those who once sought to secede from the union would be an affront to the nation’s history.

The president also takes issue with the omission in the 4,000-plus-page defense spending package of a measure that would repeal a largely obscure section of the Communications Decency Act known as Section 230.

The decades-old telecommunications law provides a legal shield to media companies like Twitter or Facebook when a third party posts objectionable or hate-based content on its platform.

While the president and opponents of Section 230 argue the measure effectively limits First Amendment rights by instructing platforms to moderate their content, it technically does nothing of the sort.

Trump’s veto of the bill — which includes significant beefing up of the Defense Department’s cybersecurity operations — comes as Russian hackers are believed to be behind massive breaches at the departments of the Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, identified that the breaches had been occurring since at least March of this year, and there was still more to uncover about the extent of it, but official email platforms for many departments were accessed. 

CISA would not confirm the nation of origin responsible for the breach but the Associated Press reported that an anonymous federal official suggested the Kremlin was the likely culprit given an observed pattern in the hack. Russia has denied any involvement. 

The House and Senate, by wide margins, recently passed legislation approving $900 billion in pandemic relief. In those bills, they anticipated Trump’s veto would come as funding ran out and the holidays approached, so they passed a provision in the omnibus to fund the government through Dec. 28, meaning lawmakers will have until at least Monday to reconvene and potentially override Trump.

A longtime and vocal ally to President Donald Trump, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy indicated last week he could sustain Trump’s veto if the package comes back to the House of Representatives.

While President Trump has suggested the bill fails to support members of the military, the FY21 NDAA package does feature a 3% bump in pay for service members, a 30-day extension of personal protective equipment to protect those individuals from the novel coronavirus and an increase in paid-leave benefits for federal employees.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Democrat Congressman Al Green said he is prepared to override the president’s veto, en route to Washington from Texas to do so.

“We had enough votes to override it prior to the president’s actions,” said Green, who represents the greater Houston area. “But there are many lawmakers who quake in their boots at the thought of having to do something antithetical to the whims of this president. And the proof of whether they will override this veto will actually be in their vote. Until now, everybody wants to go to heaven, as it were, but nobody wants to die.”

Newly minted as chair of the Texas Democratic Congressional Delegation, Green pushed back against the claim that Trump’s veto lends support to the military or veterans.

“In this circumstance, it seems to me that his desire to demonstrate to those who were in Charlottesville screaming ‘Blood and soil!’ and ‘Jews will not replace us’ — it seems to me his desire to demonstrate to them that he will protect the things that are near and dear to them trumps the needs of our veterans,” he said.  

During a call with reporters, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said Wednesday that he anticipated the move from Trump, having been warned by leadership lawmakers that he could be forced back into town to override the veto in short order.  

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi slammed Trump Wednesday, saying it was particularly hard to stomach Trump’s “using his final hours in office to sow chaos” by denying pay raises, hazard pay, paid family leave, child care, housing, and protection and the distribution of veterans’ benefits. 

Pelosi vowed the House would take up the override on December 28. 

Trump, who has also aired objections to approving the $900 billion pandemic relief package passed by Congress under much duress, said nothing about that decision to reporters as he boarded the presidential helicopter from the White House’s south lawn Wednesday evening. 

The president is headed to his Mar-a-Lago golf resort in Florida as the government scrambles to avoid shutting down and the Covid-19 pandemic death toll continues to rise.

According to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus resource tracker, more than 324,000 people are dead and more than 18 million are infected.

The Missoula Current contributed to this story.