Letters From an American

The First Veto

Republicans battle over the cause of conservatism.

The First Veto

Trump is running far behind Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the polls. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

January 1, 2021

Congress began the new year by repassing the National Defense Authorization Act over Trump’s veto, finding the two-thirds majority it needed to override one of Trump’s vetoes for the first time. The House of Representatives passed the bill on Monday by a vote of 322 to 87. The Senate vote was 81 to 13, with 6 Senators not voting.

The NDAA allocates the money Congress has appropriated for the military, and since Congress passed the first NDAA in 1961, it has never failed to pass.

This measure pushed back on a number of the president’s policies and demands. He wanted to be able to sue social media companies for things other people post on them—the law preventing such lawsuits is in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act—but even staunch Trump supporter James Inhofe (R-OK) refused, noting that Section 230 has nothing to do with the military. Trump objected to the measure in the bill that requires renaming military bases that currently bear the name of Confederate generals; Congress left it in. Congress also specified that federal authorities must “visibly display” their name tags when operating in public, a rebuke to the administration’s deployment of officers in unmarked clothing this summer.

The NDAA also challenges Trump’s policies by slowing or stopping the removal of troops from Germany and Afghanistan, making it harder to move troops to our southern border, and blocking the removal of troops from South Korea unless the Pentagon signs off on the move. It caps at $100 million the amount of money the military can use on domestic projects, a protest of the president’s decision to fund his wall by moving $3.6 billion from other projects.

The NDAA also contains strong anti-corruption measures. Originally passed as the Corporate Transparency Act, these measures prohibit so-called shell companies with secret owners and operators, key tools of criminals and money launderers. The NDAA also regulates the antiquities trade, another haven for money laundering. The director of Transparency International’s U.S. office, Gary Kalman, called the bill “one of the most important anti-corruption measures ever passed by the U.S. Congress.”

After the Senate repassed the bill, Trump took to Twitter to call the Republican Senate “Pathetic!!!”

As the veto override indicates, the war between Trump and establishment Republicans is now out in the open. On the one hand are lawmakers who are publicly backing Trump and his on-going attempt to overturn the election; on the other hand are Republicans who don’t want to sign on to an assault on our democracy that, if it succeeds, would make Trump a dictator and remove all their power.

House lawmakers have indicated they will challenge some of the state electoral votes for Biden when Congress counts them on January 6. The process of gerrymandering, which protects Republicans from moderate challengers but leaves them open to challenges from extremists, has put a number of Republican radicals in the House, but the Senate has far fewer of them. A challenge from one house of Congress does not do anything, but a challenge to a state’s electoral votes from both the House and the Senate means that both houses must debate whether or not to accept the electoral votes from that state. Then they decide by a simple majority vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has tried to keep Senate Republicans from challenging any of the votes because he doesn’t want Republicans to have to go on record either for or against the president. The election was not close. Biden won by more than 7 million votes and by 306 to 232 in the Electoral College. The Trump campaign has either lost or had dismissed 60 of the 61 cases it has brought over the election, and its advisers are increasingly unhinged.

Today, for example, a Trump-appointed federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by Louie Gohmert (R-TX) that sought to empower Vice President Mike Pence to throw out Biden’s victory. Pence had opposed the lawsuit, and after the judge ruled, attorney Lin Wood, who is a supporter of the Trump effort, bizarrely predicted that Vice President Mike Pence could “face execution by firing squad” for “treason.” (Twitter suspended his account.) Trump himself today retweeted an 8-minute video claiming that the Communist Party in China has secretly infiltrated America through Hollywood and newspapers and has bought Joe Biden. It urges “patriots” to defend America. To the tweet, Trump added: “January 6th. See you in D.C.”

It seems clear that, with no chance of proving this election fraudulent, Trump is now trying to incite violence. Nonetheless, Republicans who are jockeying for the 2024 presidential nomination want to make sure they can pick up Trump’s voters. While McConnell doesn’t want Senators to have to declare their support either way, those vying to lead the party want to differentiate themselves from the pack.

On Wednesday, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) announced he would join the efforts of his House colleagues to challenge Biden electors from Pennsylvania and perhaps other states. This will not affect the outcome of the election, but it will force senators to go on record for or against Trump. In a statement, Hawley listed Trump talking points: the influence of “mega corporations” on behalf of Biden and “voter fraud.” Hawley seems pretty clearly to be angling for a leg up in 2024.

On Wednesday night, Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) made his own play for the future of the Republican Party. He refuted point by point the idea that Trump won. He scolded his colleagues who are signing on to Trump’s attempt to steal the election, calling them “institutional arsonists.”

“When we talk in private, I haven’t heard a single Congressional Republican allege that the election results were fraudulent – not one,” he wrote on Facebook. “Instead, I hear them talk about their worries about how they will “look” to President Trump’s most ardent supporters.” They think they can “tap into the president’s populist base without doing any real, long-term damage,” he wrote, but they’re wrong. “Adults don’t point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government.”

Today, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, launched his own bid to redefine the Republican Party with an attack on Trump’s apparent botching of the coronavirus vaccine rollout. In a press release, Romney noted “[t]hat comprehensive vaccination plans have not been developed at the federal level and sent to the states as models is as incomprehensible as it is inexcusable.”

But he didn’t stop there. Romney went on to say that he was no expert on vaccine distribution, “[b]ut I know that when something isn’t working, you need to acknowledge reality and develop a plan—particularly when hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake.” He offered ideas of his own, offering them “not as the answer but as an example of the kind of options that ought to be brainstormed in Washington and in every state.” After listing his ideas, he concluded: “Public health professionals will easily point out the errors in this plan—so they should develop better alternatives based on experience, modeling and trial.”

Romney’s statement was about more than vaccine distribution. With its emphasis on listening to experts and experimenting, it was an attack on the rigid ideology that has taken over the Republican Party. Romney has said he comes to his position from his own experience, not his reading, but he is reaching back to the origins of conservative thought, when Irish statesman Edmund Burke critiqued the French Revolution as a dangerous attempt to build a government according to an ideology, rather than reality. Burke predicted that such an attempt would inevitably result in politicians trying to force society to conform to their ideology. When it did not, they would turn to tyranny and violence.

Sasse’s point-by-point refutation of Trump’s arguments– complete with citations—and Romney’s call to govern according to reality rather than ideology are suggestive. They seem to show an attempt to recall the Republican Party to the true conservatism it abandoned a generation ago.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.

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