Overnight Defense: Senate passes $750B defense bill | Iran vote left for Friday | Democratic candidates talk Iran, Afghanistan at first debate | Congress moves toward tougher North Korea sanctions

Overnight Defense: Senate passes $750B defense bill | Iran vote left for Friday | Democratic candidates talk Iran, Afghanistan at first debate | Congress moves toward tougher North Korea sanctions
© Greg Nash

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: The Senate passed a mammoth $750 billion defense bill Thursday, though it still needs to resolve a fight over Iran.

Senators voted 86-8 on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes spending and provides broad policy outlines for the Pentagon.

The bill provides $750 billion in total spending, including a base budget of $642.5 billion for the Pentagon and $23.3 billion for the Department of Energy's national security programs. 

It also gives $75.9 billion for the overseas contingency operations fund, an account that does not fall under budget cap restrictions.


Republicans touted the mammoth bill as the most significant defense policy bill that Congress will pass this year. The NDAA has been signed into law for nearly 60 consecutive years, making it a lightning rod for a wide array of related and unrelated measures. 

What's in it: In a boost to the administration, the Senate bill includes the administration's request for $3.6 billion to "back fill" money the White House diverted from the military construction account as part of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE's national emergency declaration to build part of the U.S.-Mexico border wall. However, it does not include the administration's request for an additional $3.6 billion in wall funding. 

The bill garnered hundreds of amendments, with 93 wrapped into a manager's package that cleared without a formal Senate floor vote. 

Conflicts over amendments: But, similar to previous years, votes on the heap of potential amendments quickly hit a roadblock over a fight about which proposals would be allowed to get a vote. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE (R-Okla.) has blamed Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Trump: 'Everybody knows who the whistleblower is' Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens MORE (R-Ky.) for the roadblock, though Paul has argued that he can't block the bill but wants an open amendment process. 

"I do believe that we should demand that there's an open debate with amendments," Paul told reporters late last week.

He's filed six amendments to the NDAA, including one repealing the 2001 war authorization and forcing President Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan within a year and a second prohibiting indefinite detention. The two amendments have proved controversial in previous years. 

An unusual move: In an unusual procedural move, the Senate is going to vote on an amendment to the defense bill on Friday morning, after they've already passed the NDAA. 

The amendment from Democratic Sens. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Senators press FDA tobacco chief on status of vaping ban Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising MORE (Va.) and Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallBureau of Land Management staff face relocation or resignation as agency moves west Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Hillicon Valley: Twitter to refuse all political ads | Trump camp blasts 'very dumb' decision | Ocasio-Cortez hails move | Zuckerberg doubles down on Facebook's ad policies | GOP senator blocks sweeping election reform bill MORE (N.M.) would block Trump from using funding to carry out military action against Iran unless he has congressional approval. Senators say if the amendment passes it will be added to the bill retroactively. 

The Iran vote comes amid growing tensions between the United States and Tehran, and after Democrats threatened to block the defense bill until they were able to get a vote on the proposal. 

McConnell initially indicated he would not wait until after Democratic senators running for president were able to return to Washington to hold a vote. But he announced from the Senate floor that the chamber would vote on the amendment Friday and hold the vote open until everyone was able to return. 

North Korea sanctions: Also added to the Senate NDAA were stricter sanctions on North Korea, aimed to plug what Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Senate Foreign Relations chair: 'Best' not to pass Turkey sanctions bill 'at this moment' On The Money: Retirement savings bill blocked in Senate after fight over amendments | Stopgap bill may set up December spending fight | Hardwood industry pleads for relief from Trump trade war MORE (D-Md.) described as a "leaking" sanctions regime.

The House version of the bill does not contain the sanctions, but sponsors of the provision are confident it will survive bicameral negotiations based on conversations with House members.

"We've seen two summits -- we had the Singapore summit and the Hanoi summit -- and we held off on pushing the legislation during those negotiations, but now that they've fallen apart, we thought it was important to take this next step," Van Hollen said Thursday about President Trump's two meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnOvernight Defense: Ex-Ukraine ambassador offers dramatic day of testimony | Talks of 'crisis' at State Department | Trump tweets criticism of envoy during hearing | Dems warn against 'witness intimidation' | Trump defends his 'freedom of speech' Biden responds to North Korea: 'I wear their insults as a badge of honor' Erdoğan should receive the wrath of the US, not its embrace MORE.

The bill is called the Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea Act, after the student who died after being returned from North Korean detention in a coma. Its sanctions are modeled after ones against Iran in 2010 and 2012 credited with bringing Tehran to the negotiating table.

What's left to be done: The Senate bill still needs to be reconciled with the House, which plans to take up its version of the NDAA in July.

The two bills have considerable differences, including the dollar figure. The House bill would authorize $733 billion for defense compared with the Senate's $750 billion.

There are also several provisions in the House version deeply opposed by Republicans, including prohibitions on the deployment of submarine-launched low-yield nuclear warheads and the use of Pentagon funding for a border wall.

House Democrats are also expected to pass amendments on the floor that would protect transgender military service members and block funding for military action against Iran, two more hot-button issues likely to gum up conference negotiations.


IRAN, AFGHANISTAN POP UP IN FIRST 2020 DEMOCRATIC DEBATE: Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean Klobuchar New poll shows four top-tier 2020 candidates in Iowa New poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Election 2020: Why I'm watching Amy and Andy MORE (D-Minn.) on Wednesday said President Trump is "10 minutes" and "one tweet" away from getting the United States involved in a war. 

"This president is literally, every single day, 10 minutes away from going to war, one tweet away from going to war," Klobuchar said at the first 2020 Democratic debate Wednesday evening in response to a question about heightened tensions with Iran.

"I don't think we should be conducting foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5 in the morning," Klobuchar added, prompting a round of applause from the audience.

Calls to return to deal: Klobuchar and other candidates criticized Trump for withdrawing the United States from the Obama-era nuclear agreement between Iran and other world powers, saying that the move has led to escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Klobuchar asserted that Trump "has made us less safe than we were when he became president," referencing recent comments by Iranian officials that Tehran will soon surpass the caps on uranium put in place under the agreement.

She also said she would go to Congress for an authorization for use of military force if there were any possibility of an armed conflict with Iran.

Background: Trump told Hill.TV in an exclusive interview earlier this week that he does not need congressional approval to strike Iran.

"But we've been keeping Congress abreast of what we're doing ... and I think it's something they appreciate," Trump said. "I do like keeping them abreast, but I don't have to do it legally."

Late last week, Trump ordered a strike against Iran but later reversed his order. The strike would have been in response to the downing of an unmanned U.S. aerial vehicle over the Strait of Hormuz.

Gabbard hits at Trump Cabinet: Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Saagar Enjeti: Yang's plan to regulate big tech misses the mark MORE (D-Hawaii) also chimed in on Iran during the debate. She said that Trump's "chickenhawk Cabinet" has led the United States "to the brink of war" with the country, urging an end to escalating tensions and a return to the Iran nuclear deal.

"Donald Trump and his cabinet, Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoImpeachment battle looms over must-pass defense bill Five takeaways from ex-ambassador's dramatic testimony Pompeo: No US response ruled out in Hong Kong MOREJohn BoltonJohn BoltonHimes: 'I don't think it blows a hole in the case' if Sondland testifies there was no quid pro quo Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Top NSC aide puts Sondland at front lines of Ukraine campaign, speaking for Trump MORE and others are creating a situation that just a spark would light off a war with Iran which is incredibly dangerous," she said.

Gabbard, who is an Iraq War veteran, said that "the American people need to understand that this war with Iran would be far more devastating, far more costly than anything that we ever saw in Iraq."

Asked about her red line, Gabbard answered that if there was an attack against American troops "then there would have to be a response."

Clash over Afghanistan: Later in the debate, Gabbard and Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanThe Hill's Campaign Report: Late bids surprise 2020 Democratic field Tim Ryan endorses Biden for president Strategists say Warren 'Medicare for All' plan could appeal to centrists MORE (D-Ohio), got into a brief exchange over America's engagement in the Afghanistan War, with Gabbard proposing a complete withdrawal from the country.

Asked why current and past administrations have failed to pull the United States from the 18-year conflict, Ryan, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said that "you have to stay engaged in these situations."

"Nobody likes it, it's long, it's tedious," he said.

"Is that what you will tell the parents of those two soldiers who were just killed in Afghanistan?" Gabbard interrupted, referring to the casualties that occurred earlier on Wednesday.

"As a soldier I will tell you that answer is unacceptable. We have to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. We've spent so much money ... We are no better off in Afghanistan than we were when this war began," she added.

Ryan rebutted that "I don't want to be engaged," and would rather spend dollars on rebuilding American towns, "but the reality of it is if the United States isn't engaged the Taliban will grow ... we have to have some presence there."

Gabbard replied that the Taliban "were there long before we came in and will be there long after we leave."

Ryan shot back that the Taliban protected al Qaeda, the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which shows a potential risk. 


PENTAGON IDENTIFIES AFGHAN CASUALTIES : The Pentagon has identified the two soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan this week.

Master Sgt. Micheal B. Riley, 32, of Heilbronn, Germany, and Sgt. James G. Johnston, 24, of Trumansburg, N.Y., were killed Tuesday in Uruzgan province by "small arms fire while engaged in combat operations," the Pentagon said in a statement.

"The incident is under investigation," the statement added.

Riley, a Special Forces communications sergeant, was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Fort Carson, Colo.

"It is with a heavy heart that we learn of the passing of Master Sgt. Michael Riley in Afghanistan," commander of the 10th Special Forces Group Col. Lawrence Ferguson said in a statement. "Mike was an experienced Special Forces noncommissioned officer and the veteran of five previous deployments to Afghanistan. We will honor his service and sacrifice as we remain steadfast in our commitment to our mission."

Johnston was assigned to 79th Ordnance Battalion (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), 71st Ordnance Group in Fort Hood, Texas.

The attack: The Taliban claimed responsibility Wednesday for an ambush it said killed U.S. troops, but said the attack happened in Wardak province.

The deaths, the eighth and ninth U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan this year, happened hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Tuesday visit to Afghanistan.

Negotiations drag on: While there, Pompeo touted progress in negotiations with the Taliban to end the 18-year war.

"We have made real progress and are nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban's commitments to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists," Pompeo said.

"In light of this progress, we've begun discussions with the Taliban regarding foreign military presence, which today remains conditions-based," he continued. "And while we've made clear to the Taliban that we are prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear we have not yet agreed on a timeline to do so."



The Brookings Institution hosts a discussion with Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva. He will speak on the future of U.S. defense strategy.

Technology and defense experts will discuss whether the U.S. should severely restrict Huawei's business at 10:30 a.m. at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad will speak on "helping Iraq recover from ISIS, the plight of the Yazidi people, and stabilization and resilience in the country," with speakers including Kelley Currie, head of the State Department's Office of Global Criminal Justice, and Knox Thames, special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. 



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