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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 SandersWhat the shift in Senate control means for marijuana policy reform Business groups prepare for lobbying push against minimum wage Schumer: Senate could pave way for reconciliation on COVID relief next week 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 HironoOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Internal watchdog to probe Trump officials who cast doubt on climate science | Kerry on climate talks: 'I regret that my country has been absent' | Biden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate Internal watchdog to probe Trump officials who cast doubt on climate science Hawley files ethics counter-complaint against seven Democratic senators 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 TrumpBlinken holds first calls as Biden's secretary of State Senators discussing Trump censure resolution Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true 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 RyanBiden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Revising the pardon power — let the Speaker and Congress have voices MORE (R-Wis.) named the following conferees:

From the Armed Services Committee: Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryUnnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto MORE (Texas), Reps. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonTop Republican congressional aide resigns, rips GOP lawmakers who objected to Biden win READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results South Carolina governor's wife tests positive for coronavirus MORE (S.C.), Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoVan Drew-Kennedy race in NJ goes down to the wire Van Drew wins GOP primary in New Jersey Amy Kennedy wins NJ primary to face GOP's Van Drew MORE (N.J.), Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopHouse Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee | McMorris Rodgers wins race for top GOP spot on Energy and Commerce | EPA joins conservative social network Parler Bruce Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee MORE (Utah), Michael Turner (Ohio), Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersOvernight Defense: Trump impeached for second time | National Guard at Capitol now armed, swelling to 20K troops for inauguration | Alabama chosen for Space Command home Top Republican congressional aide resigns, rips GOP lawmakers who objected to Biden win READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results MORE (Ala.), Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterLobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR MORE (Pa.), Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayThompson named top Republican on Agriculture Bottom line House Republican introduces amendment to include farm aid in stopgap funding bill MORE (Texas), Doug LambornDouglas (Doug) LambornOvernight Defense: Trump impeached for second time | National Guard at Capitol now armed, swelling to 20K troops for inauguration | Alabama chosen for Space Command home Top Republican congressional aide resigns, rips GOP lawmakers who objected to Biden win READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results MORE (Colo.), Robert Wittman (Va.), Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanColorado governor says he was not exposed to COVID-19 after Aurora mayor tests positive Colorado mayor says he called protesters 'domestic terrorists' out of 'frustration' Colorado governor directs officials to reexamine death of Elijah McClain in police custody MORE (Colo.), Vicky HartzlerVicky Jo HartzlerJill Biden visits Capitol to thank National Guard Tim Ryan, Rosa DeLauro giving free coffee and donuts to National Guard stationed at Capitol Top Republican congressional aide resigns, rips GOP lawmakers who objected to Biden win MORE (Mo.), Austin ScottJames (Austin) Austin ScottCongress eyes 1-week stopgap, longer session to reach deal Alabama Republican becomes third House member to test positive for COVID-19 this week Thompson named top Republican on Agriculture MORE (Ga.), Paul CookPaul Joseph CookHouse Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit Lawmakers seek extension for tribes to spend stimulus money following Treasury delays The 14 other key races to watch on Super Tuesday MORE (Calif.), Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneLobbying world Lawmakers grill Pentagon over Trump's Germany drawdown Bottom line MORE (Ala.), Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikLincoln Project hits Stefanik in new ad over support for Trump Wyoming county votes to censure Liz Cheney for Trump impeachment vote Stefanik knocks Albany newspaper over 'childless' characterization 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 JohnsonREAD: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results Jason Smith set to serve as top Republican on House Budget Committee OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Climate change a factor in most of the 7,000 natural disasters over last 20 years: UN report | Contentious pipeline can resume construction, regulators decide | California investigators seize PG&E equipment MORE (Ohio).

From the Foreign Affairs Committee: Chairman Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceCalifornia was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success Top donor allegedly sold access to key politicians for millions in foreign cash: report Here are the 17 GOP women newly elected to the House this year MORE (Calif.) and Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerCheney tests Trump grip on GOP post-presidency National Guard back inside Capitol after having been moved to parking garage Budowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated 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 BarrHouse Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Energy issues rule allowing companies to develop own efficiency tests for products | GOP lawmakers push back on Federal Reserve's climate risk efforts GOP lawmakers push back on Federal Reserve's climate risk efforts MORE (Ky.).

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiEverytown urges Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to resign over newly uncovered remarks Sen. Patrick Leahy returns home after being hospitalized Marjorie Taylor Greene expressed support on Facebook for violence against Democrats MORE (D-Calif.) named the following conferees:

From Armed Services: Ranking member Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Biden lifts Trump's transgender military ban | Democrats, advocates celebrate end of ban | 5,000 guardsmen staying in DC through mid-March Biden lifting Trump's transgender military ban Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 MORE (Wash.), Reps. Susan DavisSusan Carol DavisOvernight Defense: Congress recommends nuclear arms treaty be extended | Dems warn Turkey | Military's eighth COVID death identified Bipartisan congressional task force recommends extending nuclear treaty with Russia The Hill's Campaign Report: Minneapolis protests rock the nation MORE (Calif.), James Langevin (R.I.), Jim CooperJim CooperFive centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote Pelosi wins Speakership for fourth time in dramatic vote LIVE COVERAGE: House votes to name Speaker MORE (Tenn.), Joe CourtneyJoseph (Joe) D. CourtneySouth Carolina Republican tests positive for coronavirus hours after speaking on House floor Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 Connecticut Democrat diagnosed with COVID-19 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 GaramendiReport on military aviation crashes faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' Wuhan is the final straw: The world needs to divest from China GOP seizes on 'defund the police' to galvanize base MORE (Calif.), Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierOvernight Defense: Biden lifts Trump's transgender military ban | Democrats, advocates celebrate end of ban | 5,000 guardsmen staying in DC through mid-March Calls grow for 9/11-style panel to probe Capitol attack Global Gag Rule is just the tip of the iceberg: Why Repealing the Helms Amendment matters MORE (Calif.), Marc VeaseyMarc Allison VeaseyThe Memo: Democrats grapple with 'elite' tag Two lawmakers announce bids to succeed Bustos at DCCC Bustos won't seek to chair DCCC again in wake of 2020 results MORE (Texas), Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard blasts new House rules on gender neutral language as 'height of hypocrisy' A vaccine, a Burrito and more: 7 lighter, memorable moments from 2020 Growing number of House Republicans warm to proxy voting MORE (Hawaii), Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeBeto O'Rourke: Ted Cruz 'guilty of sedition' in Capitol insurrection Boebert appears to carry gun on Capitol Hill in new ad 7 surprise moments from a tumultuous year in politics MORE (Texas) and Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyLobbying from the center Lawmakers move to oust extremists from military Democrats seize on GOP donor fallout 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 WatersMarjorie Taylor Greene expressed support on Facebook for violence against Democrats Bottom line Capitol Police report warned that Congress could be targeted three days before riot MORE (Calif.).

From Foreign Affairs: Ranking member Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelState Department sets up new bureau for cybersecurity and emerging technologies How Congress dismissed women's empowerment 2020: A year in photos 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) MenendezSenate confirms Antony Blinken as Biden's secretary of State Biden must wait weekend for State Department pick Senate presses Biden's pick for secretary of State on Iran, China, Russia and Yemen MORE (D-N.J.) and Cory GardnerCory GardnerOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs denounce Capitol attack | Contractors halt donations after siege | 'QAnon Shaman' at Capitol is Navy vet Lobbying world Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes 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 MattisOvernight Defense: Austin takes helm at Pentagon | COVID-19 briefing part of Day 1 agenda | Outrage over images of National Guard troops in parking garage Senate confirms Austin to lead Pentagon under Biden Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 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

 

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