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 SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSenate Dems introduce bill to prevent Trump from using disaster funds to build wall Klobuchar, O'Rourke visit Wisconsin as 2020 race heats up Sherrod Brown pushes for Medicare buy-in proposal in place of 'Medicare for all' 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 HironoFemale Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations Trump tweets video mocking Dems not cheering during State of the Union New battle lines in war over Trump’s judicial picks 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 TrumpMcCabe says he was fired because he 'opened a case against' Trump McCabe: Trump said 'I don't care, I believe Putin' when confronted with US intel on North Korea McCabe: Trump talked to me about his election victory during 'bizarre' job interview 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 RyanUnscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden Coulter defends Paul Ryan: This is 100 percent Trump's fault The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration MORE (R-Wis.) named the following conferees:

From the Armed Services Committee: Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants Trump defends using DOD funds on border wall: 'Some of the generals think that this is more important' Overnight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents MORE (Texas), Reps. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonPollster says younger lawmakers more likely to respond to State of the Union on social media The State of the Union is obsolete Dem leaders avert censure vote against Steve King MORE (S.C.), Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoLoBiondo launches consulting firm Live coverage: House elects new Speaker as Dems take charge The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — George H.W. Bush lies in state | NRCC suffers major hack | Crunch-time for Congress MORE (N.J.), Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopSenate votes to extend key funding mechanism for parks Republicans push back at first climate hearings Climate change on front burner after 8 years of GOP rule MORE (Utah), Michael Turner (Ohio), Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersFormer GOP House Intel chair: McConnell eating 'manure sandwich' with Trump's national emergency Lawmakers quiz officials on 2020 election security measures Hillicon Valley: House panel takes on election security | DOJ watchdog eyes employee texts | Senate Dems urge regulators to block T-Mobile, Sprint deal | 'Romance scams' cost victims 3M in 2018 MORE (Ala.), Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterExiting lawmakers jockey for K Street perch GOP struggles to win votes for Trump’s B wall demand House and Senate negotiators reach agreement on water infrastructure bill MORE (Pa.), Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayAdam Schiff, Glenn Simpson and their Forrest Gump-like encounter in Aspen Schumer hits back at Trump: ‘He’s hostage-taking once again’ Hillicon Valley: House Intel panel will release Russia interviews | T-Mobile, Sprint step up merger push | DHS cyber office hosting webinars on China | Nest warns customers to shore up password security MORE (Texas), Doug LambornDouglas (Doug) LambornGOP lawmakers protest LGBT protections in new NAFTA deal 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 New fears over Chinese espionage grip Washington MORE (Colo.), Robert Wittman (Va.), Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Gardner gets latest Democratic challenge from former state senator Gardner, Portman endorse Trump for 2020 MORE (Colo.), Vicky HartzlerVicky Jo HartzlerFarm bill presents opportunity to improve SNAP program Record numbers of women nominated for governor, Congress Five GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus MORE (Mo.), Austin ScottJames (Austin) Austin ScottOvernight Defense: Officials rush to deny writing anonymous op-ed | Lawmakers offer measure on naming NATO headquarters after McCain | US, India sign deal on sharing intel Lawmakers introduce resolution to back naming NATO headquarters after McCain Republicans mull new punishments for dissident lawmakers MORE (Ga.), Paul CookPaul Joseph CookHouse lawmakers look to reassure Australia after Mattis resignation New partnerships in South America could lead to additional action on Hezbollah GOP House candidate once called Obama a secret Muslim who sympathizes with terrorists: report MORE (Calif.), Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneFive takeaways from the latest fundraising reports in the lead-up to 2020 House lawmakers look to reassure Australia after Mattis resignation GOP struggles to find right Republican for Rules MORE (Ala.), Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikGOP announces members who will serve on House intel panel Bipartisan House group introduces bills to stall Syria, South Korea troop withdrawals House votes on 10th bill to reopen government 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 RoyceLawmakers propose banning shark fin trade Bottom Line Exiting lawmakers jockey for K Street perch MORE (Calif.) and Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerGOP rep deployed to southern border with Air National Guard unit GOP rep: Trump needs to ‘quit complimenting Kim Jong Un’ GOP compares Ocasio-Cortez to Trump MORE (Ill.).

From the Financial Services Committee: Chairman Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingThe next two years of federal housing policy could be positive under Mark Calabria Why Ocasio-Cortez should make flood insurance reform a priority Exiting lawmakers jockey for K Street perch MORE (Texas) and Rep. Andy BarrGarland (Andy) Hale BarrSchumer urging ex-congressional candidate Amy McGrath to run against McConnell House Dems unveil initial GOP targets in 2020 Poll shows 25 percent view McConnell favorably, lowest among leaders in survey MORE (Ky.).

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiThe national emergency will haunt Republicans come election season On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win MORE (D-Calif.) named the following conferees:

From Armed Services: Ranking member Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants Papering over climate change impacts is indefensible Why Democrats are pushing for a new nuclear policy MORE (Wash.), Reps. Susan DavisSusan Carol DavisOvernight Defense: Gillibrand offers bill to let transgender troops serve | Pentagon ready to protect US personnel in Venezuela | Dems revive fight with Trump over Saudis Gillibrand introduces bipartisan bill to allow transgender military service Bold, bipartisan action on child care will win plenty of friends MORE (Calif.), James Langevin (R.I.), Jim CooperJames (Jim) Hayes Shofner CooperWhy Democrats are pushing for a new nuclear policy The 15 Democrats who voted against Pelosi House elects Pelosi to second Speakership MORE (Tenn.), Joe CourtneyJoseph (Joe) D. CourtneyDems offer smaller step toward ‘Medicare for all' Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — Powerful House committee turns to drug pricing | Utah governor defies voters on Medicaid expansion | Dems want answers on controversial new opioid House lawmakers look to reassure Australia after Mattis resignation 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 GaramendiOvernight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump blasts intel officials as 'passive and naive' | Lawmakers reintroduce Yemen war powers resolution | Dems push Pentagon to redo climate report | VA proposes new rules for private health care House Armed Services Dems demand Pentagon offer more complete climate change report Overnight Defense: Trump agrees to reopen government without wall funding | Senate approves stopgap spending | Dems ask Armed Services chair to block military funding for wall | Coast Guard official assures workers they will receive back pay MORE (Calif.), Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierFemale Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations Joe Kennedy introduces resolution rejecting Trump’s transgender military ban Overnight Defense: Gillibrand offers bill to let transgender troops serve | Pentagon ready to protect US personnel in Venezuela | Dems revive fight with Trump over Saudis MORE (Calif.), Marc VeaseyMarc Allison VeaseyCongressional Black Caucus faces tough decision on Harris, Booker 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 Bipartisan solution is hooked on facts, not fiction MORE (Texas), Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardDNC punts on measure to reduce role of corporate PAC money NBC, CNN to host first two Democratic presidential primary debates Exclusive: Biden almost certain to enter 2020 race MORE (Hawaii), Beto O'RourkeRobert (Beto) Francis O'RourkeKlobuchar, O'Rourke visit Wisconsin as 2020 race heats up Democrats have a chance of beating Trump with Julian Castro on the 2020 ticket Poll: Sanders, Biden seen as most popular second choices in Dem primary MORE (Texas) and Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyTrump snubs highlight Pelosi’s grip on Dems On The Money: Shutdown Day 25 | Dems reject White House invite for talks | Leaders nix recess with no deal | McConnell blocks second House Dem funding bill | IRS workers called back for tax-filing season | Senate bucks Trump on Russia sanctions Democrats turn down White House invitation for shutdown talks 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 WatersPrivate insurance plays a critical part in home mortgage ecosystem On The Money: Lawmakers closing in on border deal | Dems build case for Trump tax returns | Trump, Xi won't meet before trade deadline | Waters in talks with Mnuchin for testimony Waters in talks with Mnuchin for testimony on lifting of sanctions on Russian firms MORE (Calif.).

From Foreign Affairs: Ranking member Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse chairmen consult with counsel about ways to get notes from Trump-Putin meetings Cuba says US secretly moving special forces closer to Venezuela House passes bill to end US support for Saudi war in Yemen 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) MenendezWilliam Barr is right man for the times This week: Trump delivers State of the Union amid wall fight BuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president MORE (D-N.J.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerBipartisan Senators reintroduce legislation to slap new sanctions on Russia Dems seeking path to Senate majority zero-in on Sun Belt Lawmakers eager for 5G breakthrough 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 MattisTrump nominates ambassador to Turkey Overnight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants Top US general: Trump wrong on Syria pullout, ISIS defeat 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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