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Congress To Start Debate On Annual Defense Bill


After George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, Congress started trying to pass a police reform bill. It hasn't reached a consensus, though. But lawmakers also have to debate an annual defense bill. And some of them think it's a chance to revive the conversation about police reform. It means, though, that Congress is now talking about racism in the military, like bases that pay tribute to the Confederacy. Here's NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Representative Anthony Brown is African American. And he's an Army combat veteran who knows firsthand about the military bases that carry the names of confederates.

ANTHONY BROWN: 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.

GRISALES: And he also spent time at Fort Hood in Texas. The Democratic congressman served at four of the 10 Army installations that carry Confederate names.

BROWN: Among men and women in uniform today, there's a much greater awareness of what those names really stand for.

GRISALES: This month, a Democratic-led House panel adopted Brown's bipartisan provision in the defense bill to rename those bases and remove other confederate symbols from the military. Lawmakers are also weighing plans to limit military weapons used by police departments and address a threat by President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. Democrat Tim Kaine is leading an effort in the Republican-led Senate to avoid a repeat of last month's confrontation by the White House.

TIM KAINE: We shouldn't be using the resources of the government against peaceful protests.

GRISALES: His Democratic colleague in the Senate, Elizabeth Warren, is sponsoring a bipartisan measure similar to Brown saying protesters are calling for action.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Not just to say the words Black Lives Matter, but to take a tangible step toward making it true.

GRISALES: But President Trump has since taken aim at Warren, threatening to veto the defense bill, recently telling Sinclair Broadcast Group that he wants to keep the Confederate names.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We won World War I. We won World War II. We've done a lot of winning from these bases.

GRISALES: But while some Republicans have since shied away from the plan, others are willing to split with the president. Congressman Don Bacon is a veteran air force officer. And he's cosponsoring Brown's amendment in the house. Bacon considers himself a historian and notes these bases were named to appease governments in the South during the Jim Crow era.

DON BACON: 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.

GRISALES: The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, addressed his own position on the debate and said he's open to a change.


MITCH MCCONNELL: If it's appropriate to take another look at these names, I'm personally OK with that. And I am a descendant of a Confederate veteran myself.

GRISALES: Bacon and other proponents are buoyed in part by Trump's own military leaders, who were also seeking reforms. Here's General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying before Congress.


MARK MILLEY: There is no place in our armed forces for manifestations or symbols of racism, bias or discrimination.

GRISALES: Brown thinks despite opposition from Trump and others, public sentiment is pushing Congress to finally banish the symbols.

BROWN: It's changing squarely in the direction of removing these tributes to men who led an army, the Confederate army, that defended the institution of slavery.

GRISALES: It's unclear if President Trump will follow through with his veto threat. But if the bill gains enough support, Congress could override it. And the military could honor a new era of heroes.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "MILES TO GO (SUNSET ROAD)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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