Congress delivered a stinging rebuke to President Trump on Friday, handing him his first veto override in the final days of his administration.
The GOP-controlled Senate met during a rare New Years Day session and voted 80-12 to override Trump’s veto of a mammoth defense bill, underscoring the depth of disagreement between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The House voted earlier this week to nix Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which greenlights spending levels and lays out policy for the Pentagon.
It caps off a chaotic session for Congress that started with the longest government shutdown in modern history, included an impeachment trial and is now closing in a rare rebuke of Trump. In addition to the veto fight, Senate Republicans effectively killed the president’s demand for an increase in recently-passed stimulus checks and next week Congress will ultimately reject a long-shot attempt by conservatives to hand the election to Trump.
But the veto fight over the NDAA is in many ways a culmination of years-long, deep divisions between congressional Republicans and the president when it comes to defense and national security policy, which started almost as soon as he took over the White House with a months-long fight over Russia sanctions.
“It’s a serious responsibility,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said about the bill on Friday. “But it’s also a tremendous opportunity: to direct our national security priorities to reflect the resolve of the American people and the evolving threats to their safety, at home and abroad.”
The president warned for months that he would veto the defense bill, which with Friday’s veto vote will become law for the 60th year in a row, over language included in both the initial House and Senate bills requiring the Pentagon to change the names of Confederate-named military bases and installations.
As it became increasingly clear that Congress was moving forward with the bill, Trump also lashed out at the legislation because it did not include a repeal of Section 230, a shield used by tech companies, which GOP lawmakers argued was not related to the defense bill.
Trump’s veto statement also took aim at other parts of the legislation, including restrictions on his ability to remove troops from Afghanistan and Germany.
“My Administration has taken strong actions to help keep our Nation safe and support our service members. I will not approve this bill, which would put the interests of the Washington, D.C. establishment over those of the American people,” Trump wrote in his veto statement.
Trump’s decision to veto the bill — which came a day after McConnell publicly said he hoped the president would back down — forced Republicans to decide in the administration’s twilight whether or not to stick with a bill that initially passed with veto-proof majorities or side with the president, who maintains a vise-like grip on the party’s base.
Trump, while largely focused on challenging President-elect Joe Biden‘s win, lashed out this week at congressional Republicans, tweeting that “weak and tired Republican ‘leadership’ will allow the bad Defense Bill to pass.”
“Negotiate a better Bill, or get better leaders, NOW! Senate should not approve NDAA until fixed!!!” he added.
More than 100 Republican lawmakers in the House ultimately broke with Trump to support the veto override earlier this week. And several GOP senators told The Hill that they had not heard from Trump or the White House in the days leading up to Friday’s vote trying to sway them to vote against the override.
“I think it was more about making a statement than anything else,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.).
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said that he had not heard from the White House about trying to get him to change his vote and he didn’t know of any other Senate Republicans who had heard from the administration either.
Some Republican senators did flip their vote to support Trump’s veto after they had initially supported the defense bill’s passage.
In the House, the veto split GOP leadership with Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican and highest-ranking GOP woman, voting to override and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sticking with Trump.
But in many ways the veto override was pre-baked.
House Democratic leadership had signaled for weeks that they expected to override Trump’s veto, marking the first time either chamber had a successful override vote. Before the NDAA fight Trump had issued eight vetoes, none of which had been successfully challenged by the House or Senate.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took much of the drama out of the Senate action when he signaled that he believed he had the votes to override Trump’s veto.
“For the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces, failure is simply not an option. So when it’s our time in Congress to have their backs, failure is not an option either,” McConnell said. “I would urge my Republican colleagues to support this legislation one more time when we vote.”