US Congress clears defence bill in defiance of Trump veto threat

US Congress clears defence bill in defiance of Trump veto threat

Congress has passed a $740bn defence bill, setting up a confrontation with Donald Trump who has threatened to veto the bill over unrelated demands to strip legal protections from social media companies.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 84-13 to approve the National Defense Authorization Act, after being passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives earlier this week.

The legislation passed with a majority of more than two-thirds in both houses of Congress, meaning lawmakers have enough votes to override a veto.

Mr Trump has vowed to veto the NDAA because Congress refused to cave to his demand to include language to strip social media companies of legal protections over content posted on their platforms. He has accused social media groups of being biased against him.

He also opposes language that would force the Pentagon to rename military bases named after Confederate generals as part of an effort to stop commemorating people associated with supporting slavery. He is also unhappy with language that stops him from carrying out a plan to withdraw roughly one-third of the 34,500 US forces in Germany.

The vote on the annual defence legislation marked one of the few times that Republicans have widely gone against Mr Trump.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, had urged his caucus to back the bill. In lobbying his members for the bill — which is considered “must pass” because it funds military pay — he said it would help “keep our forces ready to deter China and stand strong in the Indo-Pacific”.

The NDAA would compel Mr Trump to impose sanctions on Turkey for buying a Russian missile system. It also expands a requirement for the administration to sanction companies that help construct the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that Russia is building to carry gas to Germany.

The House version of the NDAA contained language that would have made it difficult for the US government to buy drones made by Chinese companies — aligning with pushes inside the administration to clamp down on the use of Chinese technology that could pose a security risk. But the final version of the bill agreed by the House and Senate cut the language because it was too draconian.

Pentagon officials wanted to have the legislation passed by October 1, in time for funds to flow early in 2021, although timing has regularly slipped into December in past years. Michael O’Hanlon, a defence expert at the Brookings Institution, said delays in passing the legislation had already hindered “proper planning” for the Pentagon.

Mr Trump promised the largest ever build-up of the military after a contraction during the Obama era. But his initial boost to defence spending — which rose to nearly $700bn in his first year — has evened out in subsequent years. Congress last year passed a defence spending budget of $738bn for fiscal 2020, which ended in October.

“The Trump mini build-up is over because this year’s funding . . . is essentially equal to last year’s, actually a decline in real funding,” said Mr O’Hanlon.

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