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) SandersCory Booker has a problem in 2020: Kamala Harris Wage growth shaping up as key 2020 factor for Trump Booker to supporter who wanted him to punch Trump: 'Black guys like us, we don't get away with that' 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 HironoHillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets 'digital divide' | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech Dems introduce bill to tackle 'digital divide' Overnight Energy: Collins receives more donations from Texas oil, gas industry than from Maine residents | Interior chief left meetings off schedule | Omar controversy jeopardizes Ocasio-Cortez trip to coal mine 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 TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference 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 RyanAppeals court rules House chaplain can reject secular prayers FEC filing: No individuals donated to indicted GOP rep this cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday MORE (R-Wis.) named the following conferees:

From the Armed Services Committee: Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Air Force general tapped for Pentagon No. 2 | Dem presses Trump officials on Yemen strike | Pentagon details 4M border deployment cost Top Armed Services Republican: 'I don't think anybody is satisfied' with Space Force proposal Top senators warn Turkey: Choose between Russia missile system or US fighter jet 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 LoBiondoThe 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority LoBiondo launches consulting firm Live coverage: House elects new Speaker as Dems take charge MORE (N.J.), Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopStatehood bill could make Puerto Rico a state before 2020 Here's why Congress, not the president, should lead on environmental protection Overnight Energy: McConnell tees up vote on Green New Deal | Centrist Dems pitch alternative to plan | House Republican likens Green New Deal to genocide | Coca-Cola reveals it uses 3M tons of plastic every year MORE (Utah), Michael Turner (Ohio), Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersTop Armed Services Republican: 'I don't think anybody is satisfied' with Space Force proposal Lawmakers press tech companies on efforts to combat extremism online Space bureaucracy should not slow America down against competitors MORE (Ala.), Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterEx-GOP congressman heads to investment bank Former GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lobbying world MORE (Pa.), Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayDems ramp up subpoena threats GOP zeroes in on Schiff Pelosi rushes to Schiff's defense MORE (Texas), Doug LambornDouglas (Doug) LambornThe GOP is making Ocasio-Cortez more popular Finally, a presidential EMP order that may save American lives Don’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall MORE (Colo.), Robert Wittman (Va.), Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard Coffman20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Denver Post editorial board says Gardner endorsement was 'mistake' Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign MORE (Colo.), Vicky HartzlerVicky Jo HartzlerHouse votes to condemn Trump's transgender military ban Farm bill presents opportunity to improve SNAP program Record numbers of women nominated for governor, Congress 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 ByrneGOP leaders dead set against Roy Moore in Alabama GOP strategist: Alabama Republicans need to 'gather around' candidate who 'is not Roy Moore' The Hill's Morning Report — Combative Trump aims at Pelosi before Russia report MORE (Ala.), Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikDem gun efforts run into Senate GOP bulwark Overnight Health Care: Lawmakers get deal to advance long-stalled drug pricing bill | House votes to condemn Trump's anti-ObamaCare push | Eight House Republicans join with Dems | Trump officials approve Medicaid expansion in Maine The 8 Republicans who voted against Trump's anti-ObamaCare push 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 RoyceFormer GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lawmakers propose banning shark fin trade Bottom Line MORE (Calif.) and Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerTensions between the United States and Russia over Venezuela increase Booker, Gabbard to make appearances with Colbert The Hill's 12:30 Report: Cohen back on the hot seat MORE (Ill.).

From the Financial Services Committee: Chairman Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingEx-GOP congressman heads to investment bank The next two years of federal housing policy could be positive under Mark Calabria Why Ocasio-Cortez should make flood insurance reform a priority MORE (Texas) and Rep. Andy BarrGarland (Andy) Hale BarrOcasio-Cortez plans visit to Kentucky despite being disinvited by GOP colleague Ocasio-Cortez knocks Republican over Kentucky trip: 'GOP thought they could catch us with a bluff' Overnight Energy: Collins receives more donations from Texas oil, gas industry than from Maine residents | Interior chief left meetings off schedule | Omar controversy jeopardizes Ocasio-Cortez trip to coal mine MORE (Ky.).

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller End of Mueller shifts focus to existing probes Democrats renew attacks on Trump attorney general MORE (D-Calif.) named the following conferees:

From Armed Services: Ranking member Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithTrump team spurns Adam Smith with its trade stance Top Armed Services Republican: 'I don't think anybody is satisfied' with Space Force proposal Overnight Defense: House votes to condemn transgender military ban | 5 Republicans vote against ban | Senate bill would block Turkey getting F-35s over Russia deal MORE (Wash.), Reps. Susan DavisSusan Carol DavisRepublican's campaign accused of racism for referring to Palestinian opponent as a 'national security threat' 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 Gillibrand introduces bipartisan bill to allow transgender military service MORE (Calif.), James Langevin (R.I.), Jim CooperJames (Jim) Hayes Shofner CooperTop Armed Services Republican: 'I don't think anybody is satisfied' with Space Force proposal Bipartisan group asks DHS, ICE to halt deportations of Iraqi nationals Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief under investigation over Boeing ties | Trump uses visual aids to tout progress against ISIS | Pentagon, Amnesty International spar over civilian drone deaths 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 Energy: Pentagon details bases at highest risk from climate change | Dems offer bill to bind Trump to Paris accord | Senate GOP blocks climate panel Overnight Defense: Pentagon transfers B for wall over Dem objections | Top general says North Korean activities 'inconsistent' with denuclearization | Pentagon details bases at risk from climate change Pentagon releases list of military bases most at risk to climate change MORE (Calif.), Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierLawmakers offer bipartisan resolution highlighting sexual assault prevention Democrats put harassment allegations against Trump on back burner Speaker in waiting? Rapid rise of Hakeem Jeffries fuels talk MORE (Calif.), Marc VeaseyMarc Allison VeaseyThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump attacks on McCain rattle GOP senators Congressional 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 MORE (Texas), Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard fundraises off 4/20: 'Appalls me' that feds consider marijuana illegal Groups, lawmakers use 4/20 to raise awareness about marijuana sentencing reform Several 2020 Dems say they're ready to face Fox News town hall MORE (Hawaii), Beto O'RourkeRobert (Beto) Francis O'RourkeSanders announces first endorsements in South Carolina On The Money: Cain 'very committed' to Fed bid despite opposition | Pelosi warns no US-UK trade deal if Brexit harms Irish peace | Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job Ex-Obama campaign manager: Sanders can't beat Trump MORE (Texas) and Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyLeft-center divide forces Dems to scrap budget vote Hillicon Valley — Presented by CTIA and America's wireless industry — Lawmaker sees political payback in fight over 'deepfakes' measure | Tech giants to testify at hearing on 'censorship' claims | Google pulls the plug on AI council Lawmaker alleges political payback in failed 'deepfakes' measure 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 WatersMichael Steele: A missed opportunity at holding banks accountable On The Money: House Dem says marijuana banking bill will get vote in spring | Buttigieg joins striking Stop & Shop workers | US home construction slips in March | Uber gets B investment for self-driving cars Democrats should be careful wielding more investigations MORE (Calif.).

From Foreign Affairs: Ranking member Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelDem House chairs: Mueller report 'does not exonerate the president' Live coverage: Frenzy in DC as Congress, White House brace for Mueller report House Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report 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) MenendezWe can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's The Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison Acting Defense chief calls Graham an 'ally' after tense exchange MORE (D-N.J.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Cain says he 'won't run away from criticism' in push for Fed seat Graham says he's 'not interested' in Mueller testifying 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 learns to love acting officials Shanahan says he's 'never favored' Boeing as acting Defense chief Trump moves to install loyalists 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