Overnight Defense: Defense work awaits Congress after recess | New commander confirmed for Afghan war | Mattis assures Japan of 'firm' alliance

Overnight Defense: Defense work awaits Congress after recess | New commander confirmed for Afghan war | Mattis assures Japan of 'firm' alliance
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Happy Friday 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: Congress is home next week for its Fourth of July recess, but it will have plenty of defense work waiting for it when it gets back.

This past week saw of a flurry of activity on defense bills, but there's more work to do to get them across the finish line.

The House passed its fiscal year 2019 Pentagon spending bill this week. In the Senate, the Appropriations Committee passed its version this week, but the full chamber will have to take it up after recess. Then the two chambers will need to reconcile the differences in the bills.


On the policy side, the House moved this week to form a conference committee to reconcile its National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with the Senate's. The upper chamber will have to vote on going to conference when it returns to Washington.

Here's a look at some of the differences that will need to be hashed out:

House vs. Senate spending: The House-passed spending bill would pay for 93 F-35 fighter jets, while the Senate version would buy 89.

The House bill would buy 12 new Navy ships, while the Senate bill would buy 13. The House's ship budget includes three littoral combat ships, while the Senate's includes two. But the Senate also has one expeditionary fast transport and one cable ship, while the House has neither.

On end-strength, the House bill would pay for 15,600 more troops, while the Senate bill would only fund 6,961.

House vs. Senate NDAA: Expect a lot of attention on the Senate's ZTE provision.

The provision at issue keeps in place penalties that were levied on the Chinese company after it admitted violating sanctions on Iran and North Korea. It was added to the Senate's NDDA after the Commerce Department announced it had agreed to lift the penalties against ZTE in exchange for the company paying a $1 billion fine and embedding a U.S.-selected compliance team into the firm.

The White House on Tuesday said it "strongly opposes" the provision, but did not issue a veto threat against the NDAA. Both the Senate and House versions of the bill passed with veto-proof majorities.


NEW AFGHAN WAR COMMANDER: Before leaving Thursday night, the Senate OK'd a batch of military nominations, including President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE's pick to for commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Lt. Gen. Scott Miller, who will get a fourth star, was confirmed just hours after his nomination was advanced by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Miller, who has served as chief of Joint Special Operations Command since 2016, will now be charged with turning around the 17-year-old war.

What he walks into: Miller will take over command of the war about a year into the Trump administration's new strategy.

Last summer, President Trump announced a strategy that included bolstering U.S. forces in Afghanistan by a few thousand to help end a stalemate. Trump's strategy also took away a timeline for withdrawal, saying it would be based on the conditions on the ground.

A three-day ceasefire earlier this month to mark Eid al-Fitr -- the first ceasefire the Taliban has accepted since the war started in 2001 -- raised hopes of a breakthrough in diplomatic efforts to end the war. But the Taliban did not accept the Afghan government's offer to extend the ceasefire beyond the holiday.


PENTAGON PRIDE?: With June wrapping up, so is LGBT Pride Month. And as Pride Month ends, a group of House Armed Service Committee Democrats wants to know why the Pentagon did not officially recognize it.

Eight Democrats, led by Rep. Anthony BrownAnthony Gregory BrownThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question CBC lawmakers rip Justice Democrats for targeting black lawmakers for primaries Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales MORE (D-Md.) wrote a letter to Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThis week: House Dems voting to hold Barr, Ross in contempt A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats Chuck Todd on administration vacancies: 'Is this any way to run a government?' MORE demanding answers.

"We write to express our concern that Pentagon leadership is backing away from supporting and celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) service members and Department of Defense (DoD) employees," the eight Democrats wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis. "The fight for dignity and inclusion for LGBT individuals in our Armed Forces should remain a steadfast priority for the Department of Defense."

This year, for the first time since the 2011 repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the Pentagon did not issue a memo officially recognizing June as Pride Month. Without the official recognition, the Pentagon's Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity did not issue posters and other materials to mark the occasion as it has done in the past.

The Pentagon's LGBT employee group did hold its annual celebration earlier this month. No senior official was on stage, though Army Sgt. Maj. Daniel Dailey and Vee Penrod, acting secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, attended.

The Wilkie connection: The lawmakers also zeroed in on Robert Wilkie, the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness who has been nominated to become Veteran Affairs secretary. A Washington Post story this week described his history of defending his controversial bosses, including those who maligned gay people.

Wilkie at his confirmation hearing this week said he would "absolutely" commit to serving all veterans regardless of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

In their letter, the Democrats asked Mattis what role, if any, Wilkie played in the decision to not recognize Pride Month.

Key anniversary: The low-key Pride Month came as the Trump administration's attempt to ban transgender service members is being fought in court.

Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of the Pentagon lifting its ban on transgender service members serving openly.

The Palm Center, which does research on and advocates for LGBT people in the military, issued a press release Friday touting the accomplishments of transgender troops since the ban was lifted.

"While the culture wars are fought out on Donald Trump's Twitter account, transgender service members have compiled a two-year record of achievement serving America on the front lines," Palm Center director Aaron Belkin said in a statement. "They are proving every day what military leaders and medical professionals told us: that inclusive service strengthens the U.S. military and makes our country safer."


MATTIS WRAPS UP TRIP: Defense Secretary James Mattis wrapped up his swing through Asia on Friday with a stop in Tokyo.

Much like in South Korea, Mattis' mission in Japan was to reassure a U.S. ally after President Trump's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Japan, though, has been much more skeptical of the North Korea talks than South Korea, giving Mattis a tougher job.

After meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, Mattis said the two discussed "the opportunities to increase our alliance capabilities, to deepen our cooperation and to enhance regional security."

"We are in the midst of very unprecedented negotiations right now with North Korea," Mattis said at press conference alongside Onodera. "But in this dynamic time, the longstanding alliance between Japan and the United States stands firm. There is absolutely assurance between the two of us that we stand firm."

Onodera, meanwhile, said he and Mattis agreed to continue joint military exercises. Japan was caught off-guard by Trump's decision to suspend joint exercises with South Korea.

Japan's concerns: Unlike South Korea, Japan has not engaged in talks with North Korea, so it is relying on the United States to represent its interests.

That means ridding North Korea of all ranges of missiles, not just intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the United States, as well as chemical and biological weapons.

Japan has also been seeking the return of citizens North Korea abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

In a nod to Japan's concerns, Mattis highlighted the abductees in the post-meeting press conference with Onodera, saying it is a "humanitarian issue always present in our deliberations."



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