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 SandersBiden, Sanders contend for top place in new national poll Biden leads Democratic primary field nationally: poll Warren calls for Brazil to drop charges against Glenn Greenwald 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 HironoRestlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Democrats request briefing on intel behind Trump's embassy threat claim Former Hawaii Democratic governor calls on Gabbard to resign 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 TrumpSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sen. Van Hollen releases documents from GAO investigation 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 RyanHill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders for 'inability to actually fight with bad actors' in party Biden fires back at Sanders on Social Security Warren now also knocking Biden on Social Security MORE (R-Wis.) named the following conferees:

From the Armed Services Committee: Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryBroad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa Lawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown GOP senator on Trump soliciting foreign interference: 'Those are just statements' MORE (Texas), Reps. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonUS officials, world leaders arrive in Israel for World Holocaust Forum  Valerie Plame: 'I'm alarmed' over escalation with Iran Paralysis of nations is empowering cities MORE (S.C.), Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondo Democratic challenger on Van Drew's party switch: 'He betrayed our community' Trump announces Van Drew will become a Republican in Oval Office meeting Van Drew, set to switch parties, will vote as a Democrat on impeachment MORE (N.J.), Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopOvernight Energy: Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel | GOP lawmakers push back on bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners | Green groups sue Trump over California fracking plans Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel Overnight Energy: Critics warn latest environmental rollback could hit minorities, poor hardest | Coalition forms to back Trump rollback | Coal-fired plants closing at near-record pace MORE (Utah), Michael Turner (Ohio), Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHillicon Valley: FBI to now notify state officials of cyber breaches | Pelosi rips 'shameful' Facebook | 5G group beefs up lobby team | Spotify unveils playlists for pets 5G group beefs up lobby team House Homeland Security rip DHS's 'unacceptable' failure to comply with subpoena 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: Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel | GOP lawmakers push back on bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners | Green groups sue Trump over California fracking plans Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel Overnight 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 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 ScottLawmakers warn Pentagon against reduction of US forces in Africa 5 Republicans who could replace Isakson in Georgia's Senate race Georgia GOP abuzz about Senate vacancy MORE (Ga.), Paul CookPaul Joseph CookRepublicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel Warren bill would revoke Medals of Honor for Wounded Knee massacre Amazon poised to escalate Pentagon 'war cloud' fight MORE (Calif.), Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneGOP lawmaker offers resolution to censure Pelosi for holding articles of impeachment GOP rep releases campaign ad ripping Kaepernick, 'The Squad' GOP rep rails against Democrats for rejecting Republican impeachment amendment MORE (Ala.), Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules White House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team Lawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown 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 JohnsonBy opposing a sham impeachment, I upheld my oath of office A solemn impeachment day on Capitol Hill GOP lawmaker holds moment of silence on House floor for people who voted for Trump MORE (Ohio).

From the Foreign Affairs Committee: Chairman Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade Mystery 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 MORE (Calif.) and Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerPentagon exodus extends 'concerning,' 'baffling' trend of acting officials in key roles Republican group asks 'what is Trump hiding' in Times Square billboard Koch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill 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 PelosiDemocrats hammer abuse of power charge, allege Trump put self over country Overnight Energy: Trump issues rule replacing Obama-era waterway protections | Pelosi slams new rule as 'an outrageous assault' | Trump water policy exposes sharp divides Pelosi slams Trump administration's new water rule: 'An outrageous assault' MORE (D-Calif.) named the following conferees:

From Armed Services: Ranking member Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithBroad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa Lawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown Overnight Defense: Foreign policy takes center stage at Democratic debate | House delivers impeachment articles to Senate | Dems vow to force new vote on Trump's border wall 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 GaramendiLA Mayor Eric Garcetti endorses Biden Impeachment battle lines harden ahead of pivotal week Pelosi faces decision on articles of impeachment MORE (Calif.), Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierSenator-jurors who may not be impartial? Remove them for cause Poll: 69 percent of Americans say they are watching impeachment closely The Hill's Morning Report — Impeachment face-off; Dems go after Buttigieg in debate 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 GabbardHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti defends Tulsi Gabbard's lawsuit against Hillary Clinton Twitter CEO declined to host Tulsi Gabbard fundraiser: report MORE (Hawaii), Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeBiden calls for revoking key online legal protection Trump mocks Booker over suspended presidential campaign Julián Castro endorses Warren in 2020 race MORE (Texas) and Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphySan Francisco mayor endorses Bloomberg Rep. Bobby Rush endorses Bloomberg's White House bid Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements 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 WatersGearing up for a chaotic year on K Street Maxine Waters: Republicans 'shielding' Trump 'going to be responsible for dragging us to war' Green says House shouldn't hold impeachment articles indefinitely MORE (Calif.).

From Foreign Affairs: Ranking member Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelUS officials, world leaders arrive in Israel for World Holocaust Forum  House Democrats may call new impeachment witnesses if Senate doesn't Overnight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request 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) MenendezMedia's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle Dem senators say Iran threat to embassies not mentioned in intelligence briefing Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers MORE (D-N.J.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate Republicans confident they'll win fight on witnesses Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum McConnell keeps press in check as impeachment trial starts 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 MattisLawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown Overnight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request Trump called top military brass 'a bunch of dopes and babies' in 2017: book 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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-- Associated Press: Pompeo: North Korea yet to return US troop remains

-- Bloomberg: U.S. upgrading Korea missile defense even as 'war games' halted