OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Biden taps ex-Obama chief for VA | Shutdown looms amid standoff | SCOTUS rules on rape cases in military

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Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.


THE TOPLINE: President-elect Joe Biden has tapped Denis McDonough, who served as former President Obama’s White House chief of staff, as his pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The Biden transition team announced the pick on Thursday, along with a slew of other official nominations, including Susan Rice for director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Tom Vilsack for Agriculture secretary, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) for Housing and Urban Development secretary and Katherine Tai for U.S. trade representative.

“This dedicated and distinguished group of public servants will bring the highest level of experience, compassion, and integrity to bear, solving problems and expanding possibilities for the American people in the face of steep challenges,” Biden said in a statement. 

More on the picks: McDonough is among several Obama alumni with national security experience to be tapped for the incoming Biden administration, along with Rice and Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of State.

Rice served as a national security adviser and ambassador to the United Nations under Obama while Blinken worked as a deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of State. McDonough also served as a deputy national security adviser and as chief of staff of the National Security Council.

McDonough, who if confirmed will be the second non-veteran to hold the top Veterans Affairs post, oversaw staffing changes and policy response to the VA’s 2014 wait time scandal that led to the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinsekithe Military Times noted.

Praise rushes in: Former VA Secretary David Shulkin, the only other non-veteran to serve as VA secretary, on Thursday took to Twitter to praise Biden’s reported selection of McDonough. 

But some surprised: Still, some indicated their surprise with the selection.

“We are surprised by this pick, no way to deny that,” Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS, a congressionally chartered veterans service organization, told the Military Times. “We were expecting a veteran, maybe a post-9/11 veteran, maybe a woman veteran, or maybe a veteran who knows the VA exceptionally well.”

The director added, “We are looking forward to hearing from President-Elect Biden on his thinking behind this nomination.”

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) said in a statement it was “concerned that the nominee does not meet the criteria long championed by the organization” but said it was “cautiously optimistic” about his nomination. The group’s CEO Jeremy Butler called the pick “unexpected but also encouraging.”


SENATE SQUABBLING SPARKS SHUTDOWN: The threat of a brief government shutdown is growing as the annual defense bill and a stopgap funding measure hit snags that could delay them into the weekend or next week.

Senate leadership had hoped to pass both the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and a one-week continuing resolution Thursday.

Instead, multiple senators are delaying the bills, meaning the Senate might fail to pass the stopgap measure before Friday night’s deadline, raising the prospect of a government shutdown.

“It’s got to get done by tomorrow night at midnight … or a temporary shutdown,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

Setbacks expected: The setbacks come after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hinted at a rare Friday session.

“For the information of all senators, we should expect the potential for a late night tonight and the possibility of votes tomorrow,” he said.

Part of the headache for leadership is timing and how the bills are lined up for floor votes.

Without cooperation from all senators, the earliest the Senate could take an initial vote on the $740 billion defense bill is Friday, and after that it could still be subjected to an additional 30 hours of debate.

Any action on the government funding measure is stuck behind the defense bill, unless leadership can get an agreement from every senator to let it leapfrog the NDAA. Without full cooperation, the Senate’s handling of the stopgap spending bill could drag on for days, well past Friday’s midnight deadline.

Read more here.


SUPREME COURT RULES MILITARY RAPE CASES HAVE NO STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS: The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the rape convictions of three male Air Force members, reversing a ruling from the military’s top court that dismissed their cases.

In an 8-0 decision regarding U.S. v Briggs, the country’s highest court ruled that a five-year statute of limitations does not apply to military rape prosecutions and convictions that occurred between 1986 and 2006.

About the case: The court in October heard the arguments in the case, which concerned how rape committed by U.S. service members is prosecuted and punished. 

In 2014, Lt. Col. Michael Briggs was sentenced for the 2005 rape of a female service member.

But in a landmark 2018 decision, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces broke with precedent to rule that a five-year statute of limitations applied to military rape prosecutions. As a result, Briggs’s conviction was dismissed as were those of two other airmen, Lt. Col. Humphrey Daniels, who raped a woman in 1998, and Master Sgt. Richard Collins, who in 2000 raped an airman.

Up until then, the U.S. Military Code had no statute of limitations on rape claims.

Overturned: Thursday’s ruling overturned the lower court’s decision, with the justices finding that the military code weighed “heavily in favor of the government’s interpretation” to prosecute rape claims going back to the 1980s.

“Today’s opinion was a huge win for military rape survivors,” retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, the president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military, said in a statement. “The unanimous nature of this opinion is a testament of just how wrong the lower court’s opinion was. Justice has been restored for three survivors and hope has been restored for countless others.”


INHOFE CALL TRUMP’S WESTERN SAHARA DEAL ‘SHOCKING AND DEEPLY DISAPPOINTING’: The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is blasting President Trump’s deal to recognize Morocco’s claims to contested territory in the Western Sahara in exchange for the North African country formalizing diplomatic relations with Israel.

In a statement Thursday, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he applauds Trump’s “unprecedented efforts to foster recognition between Israel and Arab nations through the Abraham Accords” but he called the decision on the Western Sahara “shocking and deeply disappointing.”

“I am saddened that the rights of the Western Saharan people have been traded away,” he said. “The president has been poorly advised by his team; he could have made this deal without trading the rights of a voiceless people.”

Earlier in the day: Trump announced U.S. recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara in a series of tweets Thursday announcing that the country had become the fourth Muslim-majority and Arab country to open ties with Israel in recent months, following U.S.-brokered diplomatic breakthroughs this year with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Morocco annexed the full territory of the Western Sahara in 1979 but did not receive international recognition of its claims in the face of conflict with the indigenous Sahrawi people, represented by the political-military group Polisario Front. The final status of the territory has stalled under a 1991 cease-fire brokered by the United Nations.

Inhofe ‘won’t stop’: In his statement Thursday, Inhofe vowed that he “won’t stop fighting” for the Sahrawi people, expressing hope the United States will return to alignment with the international community on the issue.

“During my most recent visit to the Sahrawi refugee camps, I visited with the children that lived there. They were joyous, happy, ordinary children who didn’t know yet that they were part of a frozen, forgotten conflict where their hopes and freedoms were dying a cruel death,” he said.

“Today’s announcement does not change the United Nations or [European Union] positions, nor the charter of the African Union, nor the opinion of the [International Court of Justice] – a referendum must still happen,” he added. “I urge these organizations to stand strong to support Western Sahara’s right to self-determination and am confident the U.S. will be able to return to the policy we’ve held since 1966.”

More on this from The Hill:

— Top House Democrat warns against Trump’s Western Sahara designation



NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana will speak at the Atlantic Council’s online discussion on “NATO 20/2020: 20 bold ideas to reimagine the Alliance after the 2020 U.S. election,” at 9 a.m. 

The Center for Strategic and International Studies will hold a webcast on “Nuclear Modernization and Arms Control in 2021,” with House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), at 12 p.m.

The Heritage Foundation will hear from national security experts for its webinar on “The Navy’s Role in Great Power Competition,” at 1 p.m.

The Woodrow Wilson Center will host an online discussion on “U.S.-Russia Relations in the Biden Administration,” at 1 p.m.

The Woodrow Wilson Center will also hold a virtual discussion with Army officials on “Arctic Security Dialogues: Toward a U.S. Army Arctic Strategy,” at 4 p.m. 



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Tags Adam Smith Antony Blinken Budget David Shulkin Denis McDonough Donald Trump Eric Shinseki John Thune Katherine Tai Marcia Fudge Mitch McConnell NDAA Pentagon Shutdown Supreme Court Tom Vilsack Veterans Affairs

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