Overnight Defense: Stimulus bill has $10.5B for Pentagon | Money would be blocked from border wall | Esper orders 60-day freeze for overseas troop movements
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. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: The massive stimulus package Senate leaders and the White House agreed to while you were sleeping has $10.5 billion to help the Pentagon fight the coronavirus.
Of note, the bill would prohibit the Pentagon from shifting that money to a counter-drug account it has been using to fund President Trump’s southern border wall.
According to bill text released by the Senate Appropriations Committee, the bill would allow the Pentagon to transfer the coronavirus funds to other accounts “except for ‘Drug Interdiction and Counter-Drug Activities, Defense.'”
A Democratic summary of the bill described the language as intended to “prevent funds in this title from being diverted to build a wall on the southern border.”
Earlier this year, the Pentagon transferred $3.8 billion from various weapons programs to the counter-drug fund to use to build the border wall.
That’s on top of $2.5 billion from counter-drug funds and $3.6 billion in military construction funds the Pentagon tapped last year to build the wall.
What the money buys: The stimulus deal’s $10.5 billion for the Pentagon includes $1.5 billion for the National Guard and $713.6 million for operations including the hospital ship deployments.
The bill would also provide $1 billion for the Defense Production Act, a wartime authority lawmakers have been urging Trump to use to ramp up production of coronavirus tests, ventilators, masks and other critical supplies.
The stimulus package would provide $3.8 billion for defense health programs, including $3.4 billion to buy more equipment to treat patients and physical protective equipment for medical personnel and disease response, to expand the capacity of military treatment facilities and to buy expeditionary hospital packages.
The other $415 million for defense health programs would go toward research and development into vaccines and antivirals to use against the coronavirus.
But…: The Senate still has not voted on the bill after last-minute complaints tripped it up.
A brewing fight over a deal on unemployment provisions is threatening to open the door to a push for broader changes to the bill, which was negotiated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, warned that unless a group of GOP senators back down from their demand for changes to the unemployment insurance benefits, he would slow walk the bill until stronger guardrails were put on hundreds of billions in funding for corporations.
“In my view, it would be an outrage to prevent working-class Americans to receive the emergency unemployment assistance included in this legislation,” Sanders said in a statement.
“Unless these Republican senators drop their objection, I am prepared to put a hold on this bill until stronger conditions are imposed on the $500 billion corporate welfare fund to make sure that any corporation receiving financial assistance under this legislation does not lay off workers, cut wages or benefits, ship jobs overseas or pay workers poverty wages,” Sanders continued.
Putting a “hold” on a bill would force McConnell to go through days of procedural loopholes that could delay the bill into the weekend or even early next week.
Sanders’s decision comes after Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) raised concerns that the deal on unemployment benefits would “incentivize” individuals not to return to working.
Pentagon tightens anti-coronavirus restrictions: Defense Secretary Mark Esper has ordered a stop to all troop movement overseas for 60 days to attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the military, he told Reuters.
The stop movement order will apply to all U.S. forces, civilian personnel and families — including those scheduled to return stateside and those scheduled to deploy — with some exceptions, Esper said.
The drawdown underway in Afghanistan will continue, he said.
To slow the coronavirus’ spread in its ranks, the Defense Department also on Wednesday raised the military’s health protection level to its second-highest setting for all military installations globally.
The designation of Health Protection Condition (HPCON) Charlie will increase the number of employees teleworking, cancel large-scale meetings and require temperatures to be taken at entrances to some buildings on military installations, Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah told reporters.
She added that the measures will vary across facilities.
Wednesday’s numbers: As of Wednesday morning, 227 service members, 81 civilians, 67 dependents and 40 contractors have tested positive for the virus.
Twelve troops are hospitalized and 19 have recovered. Six civilians, two dependents and two contractors are also hospitalized, while one civilian has also recovered.
Deaths still stand at the one contractor who died Saturday.
When will it end?: Trump has said he wants the economy to reopen by Easter, April 12, though public health experts do not even expect the country to have reached the peak of the outbreak by then.
On Wednesday, the Joint Staff’s top medical adviser warned against making predictions beyond three weeks.
“Everybody keeps asking ‘what’s gonna happen in two weeks, what’s gonna happen in three weeks?’ We don’t know,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff Surgeon, said when asked about Trump’s push.
“I just got an update on modeling factors which very clearly said that they are unable to forecast beyond three weeks from the data that they had what is likely to happen because we are getting so much data, and it is changing so quickly,” he added later.
Asked if he had seen any medical data that supports a move to pull back distancing restrictions by Easter, Friedrichs would only say that such actions in the military are “a balancing act.”
“At the end of the day we have to balance both the health and protection of our service members with our responsibility to this nation to continue to defend it.”
Hearings in the time of coronavirus: The Senate Armed Services Committee is switching to what it’s calling “paper hearings” in order to follow guidance on preventing the spread of the coronavirus while it tries to keep the annual defense policy bill on track.
“While the committee is committed to continuing congressional oversight and data collection necessary to drafting the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), to protect the health of everyone involved, traditional hearings are not possible under current conditions,” the committee said in a statement Wednesday.
Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has previously laid out a schedule for the NDAA that would see the committee considering the bill in May and the full Senate voting on it in June.
The committee has a hearing scheduled for Thursday with the secretary and chief of staff of the Army. That hearing will now be conducted in the new “paper hearing” format, the committee said Wednesday.
For the paper hearings, witness testimony and opening statements from Inhofe and the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), will be publicly released at the hearing’s scheduled start time.
Committee members will submit questions that will be sent to the Pentagon at the scheduled start time. The panel will release the questions and answers within a week, though Wednesday’s statement warned the committee “may exercise discretion and flexibility to ensure the Department of Defense is able to fulfill mission-critical duties, especially those related to COVID-19 response and national security.”
Do you need some good news?: The Hill has been keeping track of how Americans are helping each other through the coronavirus pandemic.
If you need your faith in humanity restored, take a look here.
— The Hill: US asking allies for extra stockpiles to help fight coronavirus
— The Hill: G-20 to hold emergency virtual summit on coronavirus response
— The Hill: Opinion: COVID-19 is attacking our defense supply chains and our nation’s security
— Associated Press: Survivors of world conflicts offer perspective amid pandemic
— Stars and Stripes: US military issues final furlough notices to nearly half its South Korean workforce, union says
— Bloomberg: Unclogging toilets at $400,000 a flush hits Navy’s costs