Overnight Defense

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

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.

Under questioning from Sen. Bernie Sanders (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 Hirono (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 Trump'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 Ryan (R-Wis.) named the following conferees:

From the Armed Services Committee: Chairman Mac Thornberry (Texas), Reps. Joe Wilson (S.C.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Rob Bishop (Utah), Michael Turner (Ohio), Mike Rogers (Ala.), Bill Shuster (Pa.), Mike Conaway (Texas), Doug Lamborn (Colo.), Robert Wittman (Va.), Mike Coffman (Colo.), Vicky Hartzler (Mo.), Austin Scott (Ga.), Paul Cook (Calif.), Bradley Byrne (Ala.), Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), Don Bacon (Neb.) and Jim Banks (Ind.).

From the Energy and Commerce Committee: Reps. Bob Latta (Ohio) and Bill Johnson (Ohio).

From the Foreign Affairs Committee: Chairman Ed Royce (Calif.) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.).

From the Financial Services Committee: Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and Rep. Andy Barr (Ky.).

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) named the following conferees:

From Armed Services: Ranking member Adam Smith (Wash.), Reps. Susan Davis (Calif.), James Langevin (R.I.), Jim Cooper (Tenn.), Joe Courtney (Conn.), Niki Tsongas (Mass.), John Garamendi (Calif.), Jackie Speier (Calif.), Marc Veasey (Texas), Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Beto O'Rourke (Texas) and Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), as well as Del. Madeleine Bordallo (Guam).

From Energy and Commerce: Ranking member Frank Pallone (N.J.).

From Financial Servinces: Ranking member Maxine Waters (Calif.).

From Foreign Affairs: Ranking member Eliot Engel (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 Menendez (D-N.J.) and Cory Gardner (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 Mattis 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

-- The Hill: NASA administrator says he supports Trump's space force

-- The Hill: Alleged mastermind of Benghazi attacks sentenced to 22 years in prison

-- The Hill: Bolton says election interference likely to come up during Trump-Putin summit

-- The Hill: US, Russia agree on time and place for Trump-Putin summit

-- The Hill: Opinion: American power at stake in great innovation race

-- Associated Press: Pompeo: North Korea yet to return US troop remains

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

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