In rare rebuke to Trump, Senate votes to override veto of defense spending bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others pass through security at the U.S. Capitol on New Year's Day.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arrives at the U.S. Capitol on New Year’s Day.
(Liz Lynch / Getty Images)

The Senate voted Friday to override President Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, marking the first override of his presidency and delivering a rare, emphatic and final rebuke by GOP lawmakers who have mostly demonstrated unwavering fealty to the president.

The defeat could further strain the relationship between Republican lawmakers and Trump, who said he vetoed the key $740-billion spending package that funds the military because it has a provision to rename military bases that honor Confederate officials, and does not contain a provision he had sought to repeal a liability shield for social media companies.

But just days ahead of two critical Senate runoff contests in Georgia that will determine which party controls the chamber, lawmakers joined forces Friday to overwhelmingly reject Trump’s complaints. The 81-13 vote was more than enough to clear the required two-thirds majority and ensure passage of a bill they called “essential” to deterring an aggressive China, protecting the U.S. from a new wave of cyberattacks and supporting the nation’s troops around the world.


The House had voted Monday to override Trump’s veto, and there was little Senate debate Friday before the vote there.

“President Trump tried to make this vote a loyalty test, and an overwhelming majority of U.S. senators demonstrated their loyalty to the common defense and to the men and women of the United States armed forces who defend our nation,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

“The truth is: Both parties care about national security, and this bill earned overwhelming bipartisan support because it strengthens our defense capabilities — including our cyberdefenses — and enhances the military’s ability to respond to COVID-19 and a host of evolving threats and challenges,” he added.

After Monday’s House vote to override his veto, Trump blasted “weak and tired Republican leadership” in a tweet and called the action a “disgraceful act of cowardice and total submission by weak people to Big Tech.”

Lawmakers in both parties have pointed out that Trump’s demand to jettison liability shields for tech companies was not germane to military policy or spending. Social media titans including Twitter and Facebook have drawn Trump’s ire for putting warning labels on dozens of his demonstrably false posts.

After four years of endless loyalty tests that have effectively cowed congressional Republicans into a submissive posture, in the final weeks of his presidency Trump is finally bumping up against the limitations of his political power.

After his veto last week in an attempt to have the defense bill revamped to his liking, Trump apparently didn’t appear to bother to lobby lawmakers against overriding it. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, told reporters he had received no outreach from the White House in recent days and didn’t know of any colleagues who had.

Trump sought to deflect attention from the final Senate vote, tweeting afterward about his ongoing efforts to overturn his election defeat and supporters’ plans to rally in Washington next week, but ignoring the thumping lawmakers had just handed him.

The veto override on the first day of the new year comes as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked a bill to increase direct COVID-19 relief payments to Americans from $600 to $2,000 as Trump had demanded.

Like his last stand on the defense spending bill, Trump waited until after an agreement had been reached to weigh in on COVID-19 assistance. His demands have pitted Republicans against one another, providing a final illustration of the chaos unleashed by a president who largely lacks his own agenda and is uninterested in the legislative process.

After House Democrats, who had long sought the larger payments, quickly passed an amendment beefing up the direct relief checks, McConnell opted to fold the measure into a vote on repealing Section 230, the social media liability protections, making the proposal unpalatable to both Democrats and Republicans and effectively killing it.

During floor debate Friday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lambasted Republicans for avoiding an up-or-down vote on sending people $2,000 checks.

Saying this was “the last chance” to send them, Schumer suggested there would be political fallout for Republicans just days before the runoff election in Georgia that could swing control of the Senate to Democrats. Voters “will know that Leader McConnell and Republicans” blocked the push to put more money in people’s pockets, he said.

McConnell and other Republicans have argued the bill for additional relief is too broad because it would send money to most Americans rather than targeting those who need it most.

Trump, hunkered down Friday inside the White House, tweeted shortly after Thune argued on the Senate floor against the bigger relief checks that South Dakota’s GOP Gov. Kristi Noem, a staunch defender of the president, should mount a primary challenge to Thune in 2022.

“She would do a fantastic job in the U.S. Senate, but if not Kristi, others are already lining up,” Trump tweeted. “South Dakota wants strong leadership, NOW!”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of the few lawmakers in the party who has criticized Trump throughout his presidency, told reporters she found it “very dispiriting” that he would “pit Republicans against Republicans” on New Year’s Day, while lamenting that such behavior from him is hardly unexpected.

“He has demanded a loyalty test from so many Republicans, and then when ... there is one incident, one [critical] statement, and he is the first one to throw those loyal individuals under the bus — that’s not loyalty as I know loyalty,” Murkowski said.

The growing rancor between the president and some Republicans is prologue to the ultimate and perhaps final loyalty test — the final ratification by Congress on Jan. 6 of the 2020 election results.

Having failed to reverse his November loss to Democrat Joe Biden with dozens of meritless lawsuits or to uncover any election fraud through recounts and audits, Trump has tried in recent days to pressure GOP allies to flout the will of voters and declare him the winner.

A handful of Republicans in the House and at least one GOP senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, have said they will formally challenge the election results next week, forcing debates and eventual votes in both chambers on whether to accept the electoral college results showing that former Vice President Biden defeated Trump.

With McConnell and other GOP lawmakers having already recognized Biden as the president-elect and expressed frustration with Hawley, it’s all but certain that Trump’s final gambit will fail.