Overnight Defense: VA pick breezes through confirmation hearing | House votes to move on defense bill negotiations | Senate bill would set 'stringent' oversight on North Korea talks

Overnight Defense: VA pick breezes through confirmation hearing | House votes to move on defense bill negotiations | Senate bill would set 'stringent' oversight on North Korea talks
© Greg Nash

Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond.

 

THE TOPLINE: Robert Wilkie, the nominee to become Veterans Affairs secretary, had his day in front of senators Wednesday.

It was a largely friendly hearing, indicating he'll win easy confirmation.

Still, there was some light prodding from Democrats on his views on privatization and on his record as described in a Washington Post story Tuesday.

On privatization: Willkie said he doesn't believe in privatizing the agency and pledged to oppose privatization efforts.

"My commitment to you is I will oppose efforts to privatize," even if it runs counter to the White House agenda, Robert Wilkie told a Senate panel.

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Under questioning from Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Keystone XL Pipeline gets nod from Nebraska Supreme Court MORE (I-Vt.), Wilkie said he would keep the VA "central" to the care of veterans, but indicated there can be a balance.

Democrats and some veterans service organizations believe the White House is being influenced by Charles and David Koch, conservative billionaires who back the group Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), which is pushing to loosen current restrictions on veterans receiving private-sector care.

On women, minorities: Wilkie defended his record on treatment of women and minorities following a news article about statements he made as a congressional aide.

"I welcome a scrutiny of my entire record," Robert Wilkie told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee at his confirmation hearing. "If I had been what the Washington Post implied, I don't believe I would have been able to work for Condoleezza Rice or Bob Gates or Jim Mattis. ... I will stand on my record."

Wilkie was responding to a question from Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoLawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator Democratic senator on possibility of Trump standing up to the NRA: 'That's just such BS' Schumer to Trump: Demand McConnell hold vote on background check bill MORE (D-Hawaii), who was asking about a Washington Post story on Wilkie's defense of his bosses' polarizing statements and his past membership in a Confederate group.

Wilkie has decades of experience as a congressional aide and in the executive branch. The Post reported Tuesday that his congressional experience includes stepping up for his bosses at divisive moments.

Did you know?: Since the VA became a cabinet-level department in 1989, no senator has voted against a secretary nominee. Hat tip to Military Times' Leo Shane for pointing that out on Twitter.

 

DEFENSE BILL WATCH: The annual defense policy bill is inching ever closer to completion, with the House voting Wednesday to go to conference with the Senate.

The motion to go to conference, where the House and Senate will reconciles differences in their versions of the bill, was approved by unanimous consent.

Likely debates: One of the big issues that has caused negotiations to drag on in recent years -- the topline dollar amount -- was settled when Congress passed a two-year budget deal earlier this year.

Still, House and Senate negotiators will have to grapple with a provision that was added to the Senate version that's meant to block President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE's deal to revive Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE.

The White House on Tuesday said it "strongly opposes" the provision, but did not issue a veto threat against the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Both the Senate and House versions of the bill passed with veto-proof majorities.

The House and Senate bills also have differences on troop levels and equipment. The House NDAA would increase the military's end strength by 15,600 troops, while the Senate version would add just 8,600 troops.

The House bill also includes two more F-35s, two more littoral combat ships and one more aircraft carrier than the Senate bill.

Another issue that has bogged down negotiations in the past is a provision in the House bill that would prohibit listing the greater sage-grouse and the lesser prairie chicken as endangered species for 10 years.

The conferees: On the Republican side, House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Soaring deficits could put Trump in a corner if there's a recession Paul Ryan moving family to Washington MORE (R-Wis.) named the following conferees:

From the Armed Services Committee: Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryPentagon chief denies White House hand in 'war cloud' contract probe U.S. and U.K. divide increases on Iran Republican lawmakers issue dueling letters over Pentagon 'war cloud' contract MORE (Texas), Reps. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonCities are the future: We need to coordinate their international diplomacy House Problem Solvers are bringing real change to Congress 75 years after D-Day: Service over self MORE (S.C.), Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoRepublicans plot comeback in New Jersey K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority MORE (N.J.), Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopNew Endangered Species Act rules provide clarity and enhance species health The House Republicans and Democrats not seeking reelection in 2020 Texas GOP lawmaker Conaway announces retirement MORE (Utah), Michael Turner (Ohio), Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersConservatives lash out at CNN for hiring Andrew McCabe Hillicon Valley: House panel subpoenas 8chan owner | FCC takes step forward on T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Warren wants probe into FTC over Equifax settlement | Groups make new push to end surveillance program House Homeland Security Committee subpoenas 8chan owner MORE (Ala.), Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterEx-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm Anti-corruption group hits Congress for ignoring K Street, Capitol Hill 'revolving door' Republicans spend more than million at Trump properties MORE (Pa.), Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayTexas faces turbulent political moment Democratic Party official: Texas is 'biggest battleground state in the country' Another Texas congressman planning to retire MORE (Texas), Doug LambornDouglas (Doug) LambornOvernight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales 58 GOP lawmakers vote against disaster aid bill The GOP is making Ocasio-Cortez more popular MORE (Colo.), Robert Wittman (Va.), Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanBottom Line Koch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform MORE (Colo.), Vicky HartzlerVicky Jo HartzlerHouse approves amendment to reverse transgender military ban The House-passed bills that have ended up in the Senate 'graveyard' Dem proposal to ban Pentagon funds for border wall survives House panel votes MORE (Mo.), Austin ScottJames (Austin) Austin ScottHouse approves much-delayed .1B disaster aid bill Third House Republican blocks disaster aid bill Republicans turn on each other amid disaster bill delay MORE (Ga.), Paul CookPaul Joseph CookHillicon Valley: DOJ approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Trump targets Google, Apple | Privacy groups seek to intervene in Facebook settlement | Democrats seize on Mueller hearings in election security push Republican lawmakers issue dueling letters over Pentagon 'war cloud' contract Native American groups press Congress to rescind Wounded Knee medals MORE (Calif.), Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneGOP Senate candidate 'pissed off' at Trump over health care for veterans House GOP fears retirement wave will lead to tsunami Conservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess MORE (Ala.), Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikRepublican lawmakers ask Trump not to delay Pentagon cloud-computing contract Rising number of GOP lawmakers criticize Trump remarks about minority Dems Overnight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker MORE (N.Y.), Don Bacon (Neb.) and Jim Banks (Ind.).

From the Energy and Commerce Committee: Reps. Bob Latta (Ohio) and Bill JohnsonWilliam (Bill) Leslie JohnsonOvernight Energy: Trump pick to lead mining regulator withdraws | Watchdog questions ethics of ,000 in Zinke concert tickets | House votes to ease natural gas exports Greens win court case seeking stronger air pollution rules for brick makers Overnight Defense: VA pick breezes through confirmation hearing | House votes to move on defense bill negotiations | Senate bill would set 'stringent' oversight on North Korea talks MORE (Ohio).

From the Foreign Affairs Committee: Chairman Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceMystery surrounds elusive sanctions on Russia Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp House panel advances bill to protect elections from foreign interference MORE (Calif.) and Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerHouse Democrats targeting six more Trump districts for 2020 Assault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress House Democrats target 2020 GOP incumbents in new ad MORE (Ill.).

From the Financial Services Committee: Chairman Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingHas Congress lost the ability or the will to pass a unanimous bipartisan small business bill? Maxine Waters is the Wall Street sheriff the people deserve Ex-GOP congressman heads to investment bank MORE (Texas) and Rep. Andy BarrAndy Hale BarrMcConnell campaign criticized for tombstone with challenger's name McConnnell launches statewide attack ad against Democratic Senate challenger Kentucky Democrat announces challenge to GOP Rep. Andy Barr MORE (Ky.).

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMoulton drops out of presidential race after struggling to gain traction Conservatives push Trump tariff relief over payroll tax cuts Democrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence MORE (D-Calif.) named the following conferees:

From Armed Services: Ranking member Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithWarren's pledge to avoid first nuclear strike sparks intense pushback Landmark US-Russia arms control treaty poised for final blow Young Democrats look to replicate Ocasio-Cortez's primary path MORE (Wash.), Reps. Susan DavisSusan Carol DavisSupporting the military means supporting military spouses Sinema, Gallagher fastest lawmakers in charity race Republican's campaign accused of racism for referring to Palestinian opponent as a 'national security threat' MORE (Calif.), James Langevin (R.I.), Jim CooperJames (Jim) Hayes Shofner CooperLive coverage: House Oversight examines Trump family separation policy House panel OKs space military branch Overnight Defense: Officials approved sending Saudis nuclear technology after Khashoggi killing | Space Command pick warns of challenges ahead | Lawmakers clash over bill blocking low-yield nukes MORE (Tenn.), Joe CourtneyJoseph (Joe) D. CourtneyHouse committee heads demand Coast Guard Academy explain handling of harassment allegations House votes to repeal ObamaCare's 'Cadillac tax' Overnight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One MORE (Conn.), Niki TsongasNicola (Niki) Sauvage TsongasMassachusetts New Members 2019 Dem House candidate says she'll file Clarence Thomas impeachment resolution if elected Lawmakers demand action, hearing in response to VA improperly denying sexual trauma claims MORE (Mass.), John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiHouse Democrats inch toward majority support for impeachment Trump bashes Mueller for 'ineptitude,' slams 'sick' Democrats backing impeachment Pelosi denies she's 'trying to run out the clock' on impeachment MORE (Calif.), Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierScaramucci compares Trump to Jonestown cult leader: 'It's like a hostage crisis inside the White House' Epstein death sparks questions for federal government Overnight Defense: Senate fails to override Trump veto on Saudi arms sales | Two US troops killed in Afghanistan | Senators tee up nominations, budget deal ahead of recess MORE (Calif.), Marc VeaseyMarc Allison VeaseyLawmakers clash after Dem reads letter on House floor calling Trump supporters 'racist,' 'dumb' Democrats face voters clamoring for impeachment Current, former lawmakers celebrate release of new book on Jack Brooks, 'The Meanest Man in Congress' MORE (Texas), Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Morning Report: How will Trump be received at G-7? Gabbard, Steyer inch toward making third Democratic debate MORE (Hawaii), Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates ABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes MORE (Texas) and Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyLawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator Democratic leaders seek to have it both ways on impeachment Senate committee advances 'deepfakes' legislation MORE (Fla.), as well as Del. Madeleine BordalloMadeleine Mary BordalloThis week: Lawmakers return to mourn George H.W. Bush Guam New Members 2019 Overnight Defense: VA pick breezes through confirmation hearing | House votes to move on defense bill negotiations | Senate bill would set 'stringent' oversight on North Korea talks MORE (Guam).

From Energy and Commerce: Ranking member Frank Pallone (N.J.).

From Financial Servinces: Ranking member Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersNadler asks other House chairs to provide records that would help panel in making impeachment decision Bank watchdogs approve rule to loosen ban on risky Wall Street trades F-bombs away: Why lawmakers are cursing now more than ever MORE (Calif.).

From Foreign Affairs: Ranking member Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelNadler asks other House chairs to provide records that would help panel in making impeachment decision Trump moves forward with billion F-16 sale to Taiwan Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid MORE (N.Y.).

The non-Armed Services conferees are there to negotiate on a provision related to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, according to news releases.

 

NORTH KOREA OVERSIGHT: A bipartisan pair of senators introduced a bill Wednesday to provide "stringent" congressional oversight of any nuclear deal with North Korea.

Sens. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezPelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid House passes temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans Senate panel advances bipartisan bill to lower drug prices amid GOP blowback MORE (D-N.J.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic field narrows with Inslee exit Inslee seeking third term as governor after ending presidential bid MORE (R-Colo.) introduced the bill as the U.S. and North Korea prepare to hash out the details of a broad statement signed by President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their historic summit in Singapore earlier this month.

"This bipartisan effort is in line with the Administration's own goals and lays out a stringent oversight framework to support principled diplomacy to achieve denuclearization while also outlining congressional expectations for any agreement to secure, monitor, and verify the denuclearization of North Korea," Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.

What it does: Under the bill from Menendez and Gardner, who serves as chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, any agreement with North Korea would have to be submitted to Congress within five days after it is reached.

The administration would also have to submit a report describing the agreement's verification process and assessing the ability of the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency to implement the process.

The bill does not establish a mechanism to block the agreement after it's submitted to Congress. But it does include a nonbinding "sense of Congress" that any agreement be submitted as a treaty, which would require Senate approval.

The bill also includes a sense of Congress that U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula should not be on the table in negotiations. Trump said the troops were not up for discussion in Singapore, but that at "some point" he wants to "get our soldiers out."

The bill would also require the secretary of State and director of national intelligence to give classified briefings to Congress after every round of diplomatic talks, as well as to congressional staffers every month. Additionally, once every quarter while talks are ongoing, the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees would hold hearings "as appropriate."

Following the agreement's initial submission to Congress, the bill would also require to submit a report to Congress within 90 days and every 180 days after that on North Korea's compliance.

The bill would set U.S. policy on North Korea, saying that the United States will pursue diplomacy to achieve "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs." It would also make it U.S. policy to keep sanctions in place until North Korea takes "meaningful and verifiable" actions toward denuclearization and to not take any military action against North Korea that "is contrary to the United States Constitution and international law."

 

MATTIS TRIP: Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOnly Donald Trump has a policy for Afghanistan New Pentagon report blames Trump troop withdrawal for ISIS surge in Iraq and Syria Mattis returns to board of General Dynamics MORE was in Beijing on Wednesday, where he met with President Xi Jinping and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, among others.

Reports from the ground described the meetings as striking a positive tone, despite ongoing tensions over China's actions in the South China Sea and an impending trade war.

"This is an important time in the history of China and the United States as we work our way forward," Mattis said alongside Xi ahead of their meeting, according to the Associated Press. "It reminds me just how important this is for both of our nations. So I'm here to keep our relationship on a great trajectory, going in the right direction, and to share ideas with your leadership, your military leadership, as we look at the way ahead."

Pentagon insight: In a statement later Wednesday, chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said Mattis and Wei "openly and candidly discussed a broad range of issues."

"Secretary Mattis reaffirmed the agreement between President Trump and President Xi for a defense relationship that plays a stabilizing role in the overall bilateral U.S- China relationship," White said. "He also emphasized that the U.S. and China bear responsibility for a military-to-military relationship that serves the interests of both countries and the security of the Indo-Pacific region."

In a separate statement, White said Mattis used the meetings with Wei, Xi and Politburo Member Yang Jiechi and "reaffirmed the importance of strategic transparency" in U.S.-Chinese military relations.

"The leaders discussed a broad range of defense issues and reaffirmed the importance of the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea," White added.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Senate Appropriations Committee will mark up its fiscal 2019 Pentagon spending bill at 10:30 a.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 106. https://bit.ly/2KjofZf

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for the nominees to be ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, ambassador to Nepal and ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives at 10:30 a.m. at Dirksen 419. https://bit.ly/2KpUE07

A House Armed Services Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on Army and Marine Corps depot policy at 8:30 a.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2212. https://bit.ly/2N23L5K

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will mark up several bills at 10 a.m. at Rayburn 2172. https://bit.ly/2KtcIXa

 

ICYMI

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