WASHINGTON — President Trump’s pledge to not sign legislation that would rename military bases that honor Confederate leaders has left Senate Republicans struggling over how to respond to an issue at the forefront of the national debate over how the country deals with its racist past.

Few GOP senators have aligned themselves with Trump’s hard-line approach, but they have also been careful not to directly challenge the president. They are now trying to determine how tenable that middle position will be in an election year when race has emerged as a central issue and as they search for an alternative approach to what Democrats want and Trump opposes.

Democrats are looking to make the Confederacy an issue ahead of November’s elections after a powerful Senate committee advanced a bill last week containing language that would rename all military assets that bear the name of Confederate military officials.

“Mark believes these bases never should have been named after Confederate generals in the first place, and should be renamed,” said Jacob Peters, a spokesman for Democrat Mark Kelly, who is challenging Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., in one of the most closely watched Senate races this year. A spokeswoman for McSally, the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat and who sits on the Armed Services Committee, did not respond to requests for comment.

The debate over the Confederate monuments has flared as part of a national reckoning over racism after George Floyd, a black man, died in Minneapolis police custody last month, which led to protests across the country.

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This Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006 file photo shows members of Alpha Company of the 244th Quartermasters battalion march to the physical fitness track at the Ft. Lee Army base in Ft. Lee, Va. As much as President Donald Trump enjoys talking about winning and winners, the Confederate generals he vows will not have their names removed from U.S. military bases were not only on the losing side of rebellion against the United States, some weren’t even considered good generals. Or even good men. The 10 generals include some who made costly battlefield blunders; others mistreated captured Union soldiers, some were slaveholders, and one was linked to the Ku Klux Klan after the war. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File) Associated Press/Steve Helber, File

Supporters of renaming buildings named for Confederate leaders or for taking down statues erected in their honor argue that it is unambiguously racist to pay tribute to men who fought during the Civil War to maintain the institution of slavery and preserve a society with white supremacy at its core. Defenders of keeping the names and statues in place have called attempts at renaming an effort to erase the country’s history.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany argued last week that changing the names of bases such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Benning in Georgia would be disrespectful to the troops who trained there.

“To suggest that these forts were somehow inherently racist and their names need to be changed is a complete disrespect to the men and women who the last bit of American land they saw before they went overseas and lost their lives were these forts,” she said.

Many Senate Republicans are trying to find a position somewhere between the two arguments, and leaders are looking at a way to redraft the language in the bill that sets annual policy priorities for the Pentagon, including punting the issue to a commission.

The language concerning Confederate officials was added to the annual defense policy bill through an amendment written by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. It would require the Pentagon to strip the names of Confederate generals from all military assets – such as bases, aircrafts or ships – within three years. It also calls for a commission that would review how the Confederacy is being honored through military property and develop a plan to remove those names.

It passed on a voice vote, although some Republicans, including Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Josh Hawley of Missouri, registered their objections to the proposal during the closed-door process, according to officials familiar with the debate who spoke on the condition of anonymity because vote was private.

“Senator Tillis opposed Senator Warren’s amendment, and he opposes renaming Fort Bragg,” said Daniel Keylin, a spokesman for Tillis, who is in a tough reelection battle. “While liberal Democrats overshadow the (defense policy bill) with political theater, Senator Tillis delivered more results for our service members and military families, including another pay raise and additional reforms that will improve their quality of life, health care, and job and educational opportunities.”

But senior Republican leaders this week carefully distanced themselves from Trump’s stance without explicitly embracing renaming the 10 bases and other military assets. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who noted that he is a descendant of a veteran of the Confederacy, said he takes no issue with whatever is ultimately decided on renaming bases.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., the second-ranking Senate Republican, went a bit further.

“I’m not wedded to the idea that those names of those military installations are eternal,” Thune said. “I think that you reevaluate, given the timing and circumstances and where we are in the country, who we want to revere with, you know, by naming military installations or other national monuments. And so I think you have to periodically take a look at that. And in this case, it’s perhaps time to do it.”

Thune underscored the challenges of removing or changing the language in the bill, noting that it would almost certainly require 60 votes in the Senate to do so. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wants to water down the Warren proposal by changing the renaming requirement to a recommendation.

Inhofe also wants more input from local communities on renaming the bases.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he’s fine with whatever decision is made on renaming military bases named for Confederate leaders. Melina Mara/The Washington Post

After the amendment cleared the Armed Services panel, Trump tweeted a criticism of Warren’s proposal and said “Hopefully our great Republican Senators won’t fall for this!”

The president’s position somewhat contradicted the stance of military leaders in his administration, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who said he would consider ideas for renaming military bases. The Marine Corps and the Navy this month also announced a ban on Confederate symbols in public spaces at its facilities.

In the days since that presidential tweet, several Senate Republicans have been careful to not directly cross the president, stressing that their preference is for the commission to study the renaming and the potential impact.

In an interview Wednesday, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he “might” support renaming bases but largely deferred to an idea of a commission that would research the issue.

“I’m not for a … commission forcing this or making the decision, but I’m certainly open to the discussion and would be interested in their recommendations,” Cornyn said. His likely Democratic challenger in November, combat veteran M.J. Hegar, has criticized Cornyn’s stance, arguing that “this takes principles, not a commission” and that “we should name our bases after heroes that fought FOR our country.”

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., another member of the Armed Services Committee, also backed the idea of a commission and declined to answer directly whether he would support renaming the bases, saying he wants community input. His challenger in November, Democrat Jon Ossoff, said in a statement that “American military bases should not honor men who led armed insurrection against the United States in defense of slavery.”

Some vulnerable Republicans up for reelection this fall leaned toward renaming the bases.

“I guess my personal opinion is just, you know, I’m OK – if they change, I’m OK,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who sits on the Armed Services panel and was the first female combat veteran elected to the chamber, said in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t want people to get hung up on a name. I guess my thought is because everybody talks about, ‘Oh, the history behind these bases’ – the history behind those bases is still there.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a statement that she supports reviewing the names of military bases, adding that “our country has had many extraordinary military leaders, heroes and Medal of Honor recipients since the Civil War who could be honored.”

The one Democratic Senate candidate who did not explicitly embrace renaming the bases is Democrat Cal Cunningham, who is challenging Tillis in North Carolina.

“As someone who served with the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 1st Special Forces Command, the Special Warfare Center and School, and currently serves with a Reserve Unit, all headquartered at Fort Bragg, there’s no shortage of American heroes for whom this installation could be named,” Cunningham said in a statement. “The first step to any changes should be seeking input from North Carolinians, including stakeholders in our military communities, and I’m committed to having those discussions.”

There are 10 installations nationwide that are named for Confederate military figures: Fort Bragg; Fort Benning and Fort Gordon in Georgia; Fort Rucker in Alabama; Fort Lee, Fort A.P. Hill and Fort Pickett in Virginia; Fort Polk and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana; and Fort Hood in Texas.

There have been no major polls since the death of Floyd in Minneapolis that have gauged public support of Confederate monuments and buildings. But polls in recent years have found that most Americans have opposed removing such monuments from public spaces or government property, although most black Americans and Democrats have supported doing so.

Hawley, the GOP senator from Missouri, is waging a fight to unravel the impact of Warren’s plan, saying he will propose an amendment that would set up a commission that would use public hearings to study the issue and discuss the impact of renaming the military assets with families, veterans and the local community. He said he personally has not taken a position on whether bases should be renamed.

“Senator Warren’s amendment, it just mandates the outcome,” said Hawley, who said Trump is “certainly aware” of his efforts.

“He’s not going to sign a mandate, and I agree with that 100 percent,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., has proposed renaming all military installations for Medal of Honor recipients.

The debate over the renaming, as well as the broader Pentagon bill, is now delayed after McConnell announced Wednesday that the Senate would turn its attention to a police bill next week, rather than the defense bill as leaders initially planned.

“Right now, we’ve got a provision in a bill that at least for right now looks like that’s going to be maybe the new position,” Thune said. “We’ve got a lot of legislative process to go through.”

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