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

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

 

THE TOPLINE: Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Gabbard, Steyer inch toward making third Democratic debate Gillibrand unveils mental health plan MORE (D-N.Y.), who is vying to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2020, introduced Thursday a bill to allow transgender people to serve in the military.

The bill, which was also introduced by Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill What the gun safety debate says about Washington Senators ask for committee vote on 'red flag' bills after shootings MORE (D-R.I.) and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care: Insurance lobby chief calls Biden, Sanders health plans 'similarly bad' | Trump officials appeal drug price disclosure ruling | Study finds 1 in 7 people ration diabetes medicine due to cost Collins downplays 2020 threat: 'Confident' reelection would go well if she runs Cook Political Report moves Susan Collins Senate race to 'toss up' MORE (R-Maine), comes weeks after the Supreme Court paved the way for President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE to begin implementing a ban on transgender military service.

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"President Trump's ban on transgender service members is discrimination, it undermines our military readiness, and it is an insult to the brave and patriotic transgender Americans who choose to serve in our military," Gillibrand, an Armed Service Committee member, said in a statement.

"We should end this discriminatory ban for good and ensure our transgender service members can continue to do their jobs, serve with dignity, and protect our country."

The background: Trump first announced over Twitter in July 2017 that he intended to ban all transgender people from serving in the military.

Then-Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOnly Donald Trump has a policy for Afghanistan New Pentagon report blames Trump troop withdrawal for ISIS surge in Iraq and Syria Mattis returns to board of General Dynamics MORE later released a policy in March 2018 that would allow transgender people to do so in their biological sex.

In January, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to stay two district court orders that blocked Trump's policy from taking effect. The ruling allows the administration to temporarily enforce its restrictions on transgender people serving in the military.

The new policy still has not taken effect, though, because of one remaining injunction placed on it by a federal district court in Maryland.

What this new bill does: The bill introduced Thursday would prohibit the Pentagon from discharging any currently serving member of the military solely on the basis of gender identity. It would also say that recruits cannot be denied entry into the military solely based on their gender identity.

"There are thousands of transgender Americans serving in our Armed Forces today with courage, honor, and distinction," Reed said in a statement. "We must not allow bigotry to impede our military's critical mission."

In her own statement, Collins added that "if individuals are willing to put on the uniform of our country and risk their lives for our freedoms, then we should be expressing our gratitude to them, not trying to kick them out of the military."

And the House has their own bill: A companion bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierEpstein death sparks questions for federal government Overnight Defense: Senate fails to override Trump veto on Saudi arms sales | Two US troops killed in Afghanistan | Senators tee up nominations, budget deal ahead of recess Democrats see window closing for impeachment MORE (D-Calif.) with Reps. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.), John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoRepublicans should get behind the 28th Amendment Student loan borrowers are defaulting yearly — how can we fix it? Overnight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker MORE (R-N.Y.), Susan DavisSusan Carol DavisSupporting the military means supporting military spouses Sinema, Gallagher fastest lawmakers in charity race Republican's campaign accused of racism for referring to Palestinian opponent as a 'national security threat' MORE (D-Calif.) and Anthony BrownAnthony Gregory BrownAssault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question MORE (D-Md.) co-sponsoring the measure.

The bill is unlikely to go anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate but could get traction in the Democratic-controlled House.

 

GENERAL SAYS MILITARY READY TO PROTECT US PERSONNEL IN VENEZUELA: The head of U.S. Southern America Command (Southcom) on Thursday said the military is prepared to protect Americans and U.S. diplomatic facilities in Venezuela "if necessary."

"Southcom is supporting diplomatic efforts, and we are prepared to protect U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities if necessary," Navy Adm. Craig Faller said in his opening remarks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

What's happening: Venezuela is in the midst of a political crisis under President Nicolás Maduro, who was sworn in for a second term last month. His election has widely been viewed as illegitimate, and the Trump administration last month recognized the leader of the country's National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as interim president.

Canada and several European and South American nations have since announced their support for Guaidó.

As the crisis worsens, President Trump has repeatedly floated the possibility of using U.S. forces to push out Maduro. Last week he said U.S. military intervention in the country is an "option."

A 'dire' situation: Faller called the situation in Venezuela "dire," and said Maduro's government "starves its people by using food as a weapon."

Venezuela has "about 2,000 generals – more than all of NATO combined" with the majority of them on Maduro's payroll via illicit drug trafficking, oil profits and corrupt businesses "to buy their loyalty and protection," Faller said.

He added that Cuba "pretty much owns the security around Maduro and is deeply entrenched in the intelligence service."

He also said the Venezuelan military is "starving just like their population," and believes that the people are "ready for a new leader."

But he warned that while Venezuela's military is "a degraded force," it is still largely loyal to Maduro, "and that makes it dangerous."

Military intervention on the horizon? Speculation over a possible U.S. military intervention in Venezuela was raised late last month when national security adviser John Bolton was photographed at a White House press briefing holding a yellow notepad with the words "5,000 troops to Colombia" written on it.

Bolton would not comment on the note and has said a military intervention in Venezuela is not imminent but "all options are on the table."

U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, have called for transparency on the administration's plans for the South American country.

"Congress must be consulted if there is any military planning action beyond the current planning for the evacuation of U.S. citizens and embassy personnel," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at Thursday's hearing.

 

DEM MAJORITY REVIVES FIGHT WITH TRUMP OVER SAUDIS: Democrats are set to challenge President Trump's relationship with Saudi Arabia in one of their first major foreign policy moves since retaking the House.

Congressional fury over the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and the Saudi government's role in the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi receded into the background during the recent 35-day partial government shutdown, but it is now positioned to be front-and-center again in the coming weeks.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday advanced a resolution that would require Trump to withdraw all U.S. forces supporting the Saudi-led military campaign in neighboring Yemen's civil war, with an eye toward a House floor vote before the end of the month.

Senators, meanwhile, will soon be able to force a vote on their companion resolution.

A refresher: A handful of lawmakers have been trying for years to curtail U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where the forces are fighting Houthi rebels supported by Iran. The United States provides the Saudis with logistics, intelligence and arms sales for the war.

But those legislative efforts, from progressive Democrats and some noninterventionist Republicans, were considered fringe until lawmaker anger at Saudi Arabia reached a fever pitch after Khashoggi's death in October.

Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident living in the United States who wrote for The Washington Post, was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The Trump administration levied sanctions on some Saudi officials over his murder, but lawmakers demanded a stronger response.

Trump's first veto? Supporters of the Senate measure are confident that it can pass both chambers, daring Trump to issue the first veto of his presidency.

The Senate amid the furor late last year voted 56-41 to approve a resolution to withdraw U.S. forces in or "affecting" Yemen except troops fighting al Qaeda and associated forces.

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The House, controlled by Republicans at the time, blocked any Yemen war powers resolutions from coming to the floor for a vote.

The White House threatened to veto the Senate resolution, saying the "fundamental premise" of the measure was "flawed."

The Hill's Rebecca Kheel has the rest of the story here.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Army Secretary Mark Esper, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson will speak on the state of their services in advance of the President's fiscal 2020 budget submission at 10 a.m. at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, will speak at the U.S. Institute of Peace at 2 p.m. in Washington, D.C.

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Top US general on Africa: Airstrikes not enough to defeat al-Shabaab

-- The Hill: Ex-Trump national security official joins lobbying firm

-- The Hill: Russia says it would be open to new nuclear pact with US

-- The Hill: Army developing new fitness test after complaints over troop readiness: report

-- The Hill: UN investigator: Saudi officials 'planned and perpetrated' Khashoggi killing

-- Reuters: For Putin, economic and political reality dampen appetite for arms race

-- The Sacramento Bee: California National Guard general to transgender troops: 'Nobody's going to kick you out'