Overnight Defense: Lawmakers kick off defense bill talks

THE TOPLINE. House and Senate lawmakers kicked off negotiations over the annual defense policy bill Thursday with a closed-door "pass the gavel" ceremony that selected a chairman for the talks.

The chairmanship alternates between the two chambers each year. This year, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' Mark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Prominent conservatives question Jerry Falwell Jr. vacation photo MORE (R-Ariz.) bestowed the gavel on his House counterpart, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).

The two defense bills contain major differences on the future of the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and Pentagon acquisition reform.

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"We're going to work hard to resolve issues and try to get them done mid-July, or at least in time before the August break," Thornberry told reporters before the ceremony.

Both bills have garnered a veto threat from President Obama as they include a roughly $38 billion boost to the Pentagon's war fund, allowing the department to bust budget ceilings put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Later, Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerWary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker Bottom line Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future MORE (R-Ohio) chose 18 GOP members to represent the chamber in the negotiations. Democratic leaders also made their picks for the talks.

The Senate will likely name its conferees after the July 4 break.

 

GAO SOUNDS ALARM ON A-10 RETIREMENT. Air Force plans to retire the A-10 attack jet would create potential gaps in close air support and other missions, said the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report published on Thursday.

In addition, the watchdog said the Air Force has not fully assessed cost savings associated with retiring the A-10 fighter

Although the military has estimated that retiring the aircraft would save $4.2 billion over five years, the GAO said "our analysis found that the Air Force's estimated savings are incomplete and may overstate or understate estimated savings." 

The report could be a blow to Air Force and Pentagon officials who say it is necessary to retire the A-10 and shift money and resources to newer, multi-role aircraft like the F-35. 

It is sure to bolster advocates of the aircraft in Congress who say no suitable alternative for protecting troops in battle exists yet. 

The report also said retirement of the A-10 would "in an overall capacity decrease" the Air Force's ability to perform close air support. 

The reduction could be mitigated by phasing the A-10's retirement over several years and introducing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter into the fleet, but Air Force documentation shows that the F-35's close air support capability "would be limited for several years," it said. 

 

IRAN DEADLINE LOOMS: Despite a nuclear deal deadline being only five days away, the State Department said on Thursday that negotiators are "not there yet" in terms of finalizing key issues. 

"We're not there yet. And you've heard the Secretary himself say he's hopeful, but he's careful on the optimism part. We're not there yet," State Department press secretary John Kirby told reporters. 

Some of those concerns were highlighted in an open letter endorsed by a bipartisan group of Iran experts, some of them former top advisers to President Obama. 

Those senior advisers include former State Department official Robert Einhorn, former White House official Gary Samore, former State Department adviser Dennis Ross and retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright. 

"We fear that the current negotiations, unless concluded along the lines outlined in this paper and buttressed by a resolute regional strategy, may fall short of meeting the administration's own standard of a 'good' agreement," they wrote.

They said International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors must have timely and effective access to any sites in Iran they need to visit in order to verify Tehran's compliance with the agreement, including military and other sensitive facilities.

Inspectors also must be able to take samples, interview scientists and government officials, and review and copy documents needed for their investigation of Iran's past and any ongoing nuclear weaponization activities.

The agreement must also establish strict limits on advanced centrifuge research and development, testing, and deployment in the first 10 years, and preclude the "rapid technical upgrade and expansion of Iran's enrichment capacity after the initial ten-year period." 

Sanctions relief must be based on Iran's performance of its obligations under the deal. And the agreement must also include a timely and effective mechanism to reimpose sanctions automatically if Iran violates the agreement. 

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: Biden faces balancing act Budowsky: Trump October surprise could devastate GOP Hillicon Valley: Democrats request counterintelligence briefing | New pressure for election funding | Republicans urge retaliation against Chinese hackers MORE should bring the letter with him for upcoming negotiations in Europe. 

"When your close associates are speaking out, you know you're on the wrong track. Secretary Kerry needs to take this letter to the negotiating table -- and not come back with a bad deal," he said.

 

GOP LAWMAKER: RELEASE BENGHAZI DEPOSITION. A Republican member of the House Select Committee on Benghazi said the panel should release the deposition of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic convention lineup to include Ocasio-Cortez, Clinton, Warren: reports Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' Kanye West 'not denying' his campaign seeks to damage Biden MORE adviser Sidney Blumenthal.

"I think it needs to be released," Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) told The Hill.

He added that Democratic demands for the release are "an excuse" for the panel's seven Republicans to do so.

If Westmoreland joined with Democrats on the special panel to vote for the deposition's release, they'd be within one vote of forcing the matter.

Panel Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdySenate GOP set to ramp up Obama-era probes More than two dozen former prosecutors, judges, active trial lawyers support DOJ decision to dismiss Michael Flynn case Sunday shows preview: As states loosen social distancing restrictions, lawmakers address dwindling state budgets MORE (R-S.C.) has resisted publishing the deposition, arguing that the select committee hasn't released a transcript of any of its previous interviews.

Westmoreland said that Gowdy is concerned that if the transcript is published, "it would discourage, maybe, some other people from coming in voluntarily," such as longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin.

"But this is the only person we had to subpoena to come in," Westmoreland noted.

 

HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT DINGS IRAN. The Obama administration on Thursday hammered Iran on human rights in a new report that comes just days before the deadline for nuclear talks.

The report accused Iran of "severe restrictions on civil liberties," as well as a "disregard" for people's physical safety human rights

The timing of the annual report threatens to embarrass Iran as negotiators scramble to finalize a deal that would see Tehran limits nuclear program in exchange for the easing of international sanctions.

Secretary of State John Kerry will depart for Vienna on Friday in hopes of wrapping up talks.

"I'm hopeful," he told reporters Thursday.

"I'm not declaring optimism. I am hopeful."

 

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