(CNN)A Senate amendment to remove the names of Confederate leaders on military property “picks on the South unfairly,” a GOP senator said Tuesday, the latest sign that President Donald Trump’s opposition to the plan has opened up an uncomfortable election-year debate within the party.
Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican whose state has military installations named after leaders of the Confederacy, sharply criticized the amendment, offered by Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and said he planned to offer his own measure “to rename every military installation in the country after a medal of honor winner.”
“I think history will show that in the 18th century, in the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, there were many non-Confederate generals, soldiers and others, in both the South and the North who practiced racial discrimination, anti-Semitism and misogyny,” Kennedy told reporters. “I don’t think we ought to just pick on the South.”
Kennedy added: “Sen. Warren’s amendment, in my opinion, picks on the South unfairly.”
Kennedy’s comments come amid an election-year debate that has forced Republicans to stake out their positions as protests over racial injustice are taking place across the country. A number of Republicans have little appetite to be seen as defending the Confederacy, despite Trump’s call for GOP senators to fall in line and kill the Warren amendment, which was added to a bipartisan defense policy bill with the support of senators from both parties.
The amendment, which would call for the removal of Confederate names from military assets, whether it’s a base, a plane or a piece of equipment, establishes a commission to come up with a detailed plan to change the names within three years.
Trump last week tweeted his strong opposition to the plan, saying the names on the bases have “become part of a Great American Heritage” and adding: “Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with.” He added: “Hopefully, our great Republican Senators won’t fall for this.”
But Republican leaders acknowledged Tuesday that the language will likely survive in the bill, given that it would take 60 votes to strip it out on the floor and there are a sizable number of Republicans who likely will join the 47 Democrats to keep the provisions in tact. That means Trump lacks the votes to remove the language, increasing the likelihood that the annual defense measure will land on his desk with the provisions — even as the White House has threatened to veto the plan over it.
“I am not wedded to the idea that those names on those military installations are eternal,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune, a Republican of South Dakota, told reporters Tuesday. “I think you can reevaluate, considering timing and circumstances, and where we are in the country, who we want to revere by naming military installations or other national monuments. So, I think periodically you have to take a look at that and in this case, it’s perhaps time to do it. “
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also signaled Tuesday that he has no objection to the measure becoming law, saying: “Whatever is ultimately decided, I don’t have a problem with.”
McConnell noted that his father, a World War II veteran, worked for a couple years at Ft. Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, and that “none of us knew who Gordon was,” referring to the base being named after a Confederate leader.
“And I can only speak for myself on this issue: If it’s appropriate to take another look at these names, I’m personally OK with that,” said McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. “And I am a descendant of a Confederate veteran myself.”
Indeed, few Senate Republicans have embraced Trump’s rhetoric, with many declining to comment and others sidestepping the issue altogether. Republicans in difficult races are split as well, with Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst backing the plan, while Georgia Sen. David Perdue and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis signaling their opposition to it.
Asked if Ft. Bragg should be renamed in his home state of North Carolina, GOP Sen. Richard Burr said: “Why don’t we wait for the debate to happen,” declining further comment.
In his tweets, Trump has sharply attacked Warren for criticism over the matter.
“Donald Trump does everything he can to stir up hatred and divide this country,” Warren told CNN when asked about Trump’s opposition to the plan.
The issue has spilled out to the campaign trail as well. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is battling in a GOP runoff to get his old Alabama Senate seat back, attacked Democratic Sen. Doug Jones for backing the Warren amendment. Sessions tweeted that the plan “betrays the character and decency of every soldier who fought for the South in that bloody and monumental war.”
Sessions says that opposing the amendment doesn’t mean it’s an “affirmation of slavery” because the “slavery question had been settled by the war.”
Asked about the criticism, Jones told CNN: “Does that surprise anybody that Jeff would defend the Confederacy and would go after somebody who will be on the right side of history?”