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 SandersSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate The media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges 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 HironoDemocrats rip Barr over IG statement: 'Mouthpiece' for Trump Supreme Court poised to hear first major gun case in a decade Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Senate eyes sending stopgap spending bill back to House | Sondland delivers bombshell impeachment testimony | Pentagon deputy says he didn't try to block official's testimony 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 TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe 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 RyanHouse Ethics Committee informs Duncan Hunter he can no longer vote after guilty plea Duncan Hunter pleads guilty after changing plea Trump campaign steps up attacks on Biden MORE (R-Wis.) named the following conferees:

From the Armed Services Committee: Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today Former White House physician Ronny Jackson to run for Congress This week: House impeachment inquiry hits crucial stretch MORE (Texas), Reps. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonBipartisan lawmakers condemn Iran, dispute State Department on number of protesters killed Trump's exceptionalism: No president has so disrespected our exceptional institutions Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE (S.C.), Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoFormer GOP Rep. Costello launches lobbying shop Republicans plot comeback in New Jersey K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers MORE (N.J.), Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopWalden retirement adds to GOP election woes Overnight Energy: Automakers group sides with Trump in emissions lawsuit | Latest on California wildfires | Walden won't seek reelection | Park Service scraps plan to charge protesters for security Oregon GOP Rep. Greg Walden won't seek reelection MORE (Utah), Michael Turner (Ohio), Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHillicon Valley: FCC moves against Huawei, ZTE | Dem groups ask Google to reconsider ads policy | Bill introduced to increase data access during probes House GOP criticizes impeachment drive as distracting from national security issues The Hill's Campaign Report: Red-state governors races pose test for Trump MORE (Ala.), Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterEx-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Former GOP Rep. Walters joins energy company Ex-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm MORE (Pa.), Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayLive coverage: Democrats, Republicans seek to win PR battle in final House impeachment hearing Laughter erupts at hearing after Democrat fires back: Trump 'has 5 Pinocchios on a daily basis' Live coverage: Schiff closes with speech highlighting claims of Trump's corruption MORE (Texas), Doug LambornDouglas (Doug) LambornOvernight Energy: Democrats grill BLM chief over plans to move headquarters | EPA moves to end its use of animal testing | Top NOAA official defends Trump over Alabama forecast Democrats grill BLM chief over plans to move officials out of DC Overnight 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 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 HartzlerGOP lawmakers express concerns about Giuliani's work in Ukraine House approves amendment to reverse transgender military ban The House-passed bills that have ended up in the Senate 'graveyard' MORE (Mo.), Austin ScottJames (Austin) Austin Scott5 Republicans who could replace Isakson in Georgia's Senate race Georgia GOP abuzz about Senate vacancy House approves much-delayed .1B disaster aid bill MORE (Ga.), Paul CookPaul Joseph CookWarren bill would revoke Medals of Honor for Wounded Knee massacre Amazon poised to escalate Pentagon 'war cloud' fight The Hill's Morning Report - Trump eyes narrowly focused response to Iran attacks MORE (Calif.), Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneSessions leads GOP Senate primary field in Alabama, internal poll shows Israeli, Palestinian business leaders seek Trump boost for investment project Sessions vows to 'work for' Trump endorsement MORE (Ala.), Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikLawmakers introduce bipartisan bill to allow new parents to advance tax credits CNN's Bianna Golodryga: 'Rumblings' from Democrats on censuring Trump instead of impeachment Adam Schiff's star rises with impeachment hearings 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 JohnsonPG&E announces .5B settlement for Northern California wildfires California prepares for biggest blackout yet Largest California utility reports broken power line near wildfire origin 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 KinzingerLawmakers spar over surveillance flight treaty with Russia Honoring service before self House approves Turkey sanctions in rare bipartisan rebuke of Trump MORE (Ill.).

From the Financial Services Committee: Chairman Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingLawmakers battle over future of Ex-Im Bank House passes Ex-Im Bank reboot bill opposed by White House, McConnell Has Congress lost the ability or the will to pass a unanimous bipartisan small business bill? MORE (Texas) and Rep. Andy BarrAndy Hale BarrOn the Trail: Forget the pundits, more electoral votes could be in play in 2020 Mnuchin to lawmakers: 'I'm highly encouraged you will' pass Trump's North America trade deal Kentucky Democrat moves closer to McConnell challenge MORE (Ky.).

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate Tech legal shield included in USMCA despite late Pelosi push GOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' MORE (D-Calif.) named the following conferees:

From Armed Services: Ranking member Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithLawmakers release defense bill with parental leave-for-Space Force deal Bottom line This week: House impeachment inquiry hits crucial stretch MORE (Wash.), Reps. Susan DavisSusan Carol DavisOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by USAA — House Dems subpoena Giuliani associates Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to testify on Libra | Extremists find home on Telegram app | Warren blasts Facebook for not removing anti-Biden ad | California outlaws facial recognition in police body cameras | China rips US tech sanctions MORE (Calif.), James Langevin (R.I.), Jim CooperJames (Jim) Hayes Shofner CooperOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Buttigieg targets Warren, Sanders on health care ahead of debate | Judge overturns ObamaCare transgender protections | Poll sees support drop for 'Medicare for All' The Memo: Democrats plunge into politics of impeachment Taylor Swift 'obsessed' with politics, says she's cautious about celebrity support backfiring for Democrats MORE (Tenn.), Joe CourtneyJoseph (Joe) D. CourtneyHouse passes bill tackling workplace violence in health care, social services sectors This week: Round 2 of House impeachment inquiry hearings State dinner highlights the enduring importance of US-Australia alliance 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 GaramendiKrystal Ball: New Biden ad is everything that's wrong with Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Impeachment of Trump resumes California Rep. John Garamendi endorses Biden MORE (Calif.), Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierPelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers Speier to call on IG investigation into Navy chief's firing Nunes faces potential ethics review over alleged meeting with Ukrainian official MORE (Calif.), Marc VeaseyMarc Allison VeaseyDemocrats decry Trump's push to slash number of accepted refugees Lawmakers beat Capitol Police in Congressional Football Game Why the Helsinki Commission still matters MORE (Texas), Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by UANI — House Dems charge Trump with abuse, obstruction of Congress in impeachment articles Tulsi Gabbard reacts to Afghanistan report, calls out Pete Buttigieg's McKinsey work Gabbard says she won't participate in next debate even if she qualifies MORE (Hawaii), Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeButtigieg picks up third congressional endorsement from New York lawmaker Klobuchar hires staff in Nevada Deval Patrick enters 2020 race MORE (Texas) and Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyBlue Dogs issue new call for House leaders to abide by pay-go rule Trump administration unveils new plan for notifying public on 2020 election interference Overnight Health Care: House Dems clash over Pelosi drug pricing bill | Senate blocks effort to roll back Trump ObamaCare moves | Number of uninsured children rises 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 WatersDemocrats could introduce articles of impeachment next week What are not criteria for impeachment? Fed's top regulator takes heat from both parties MORE (Calif.).

From Foreign Affairs: Ranking member Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse Democrats expected to unveil articles of impeachment Tuesday House approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump House leaders: Trump administration asking South Korea to pay more for US troops 'a needless wedge' 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) MenendezForeign Relations Democrat calls on Iran to release other American prisoners GOP senator blocks Armenian genocide resolution The job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' MORE (D-N.J.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump GOP senators unveil bill to expand 'opportunity zone' reporting requirements Overnight Health Care: House to vote next week on drug prices bill | Conway says Trump trying to find 'balance' on youth vaping | US spent trillion on hospitals in 2018 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 MattisThreatening foreign states with sanctions can backfire Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Amazon to challenge Pentagon's 'war cloud' decision in federal court 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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