OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Esper escalates war of words with Warren, Democratic senators | Senate panel plans to skip DHS, VA spending bills

Happy Friday,  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: Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings Trump campaign event use of Marine Corps helicopter raises ethics questions The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Smart or senseless for Biden to spend time in Georgia, Iowa? MORE  sent a letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee pushing back on criticism from 10 other senators of his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter largely echoes comments Esper made at a press briefing earlier this week, but the action of sending the letter amps up the Pentagon’s efforts to push back on criticism of its coronavirus response.

Esper ripped the senators in the letter over what he said were "false and misleading" statements about the response.

“The Department of Defense (DoD) is committed to providing accurate and timely information in support of Congressional oversight,” Esper wrote in a letter to Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Dems want hearing on DOD role on coronavirus vaccine | US and India sign data-sharing pact | American citizen kidnapped in Niger Senate Democrats want hearing on Pentagon vaccine effort Governors urge negotiators to include top priorities in final defense policy bill MORE (R-Okla.). “This is why we are providing weekly updates by senior DoD officials to Congress. Recently, however, some members have leveled false or misleading assertions regarding the department's response to the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, despite these briefings. I want to ensure you have the facts.”

“I can confidently state, informed by my service leaders and combatant commanders, the U.S. military is maintaining a high state of readiness and the morale of the force remains strong,” Esper added in the letter dated Thursday.

The letter in question: At issue is a letter sent to Esper from Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren has expressed interest in being Biden's Treasury secretary: report The Democrats' 50 state strategy never reached rural America What a Biden administration should look like MORE (D-Mass.), a Senate Armed Services Committee member, and nine of her Democratic senate colleagues in which they expressed “grave concern” about how the Pentagon has handled the coronavirus crisis.

“Civilian leadership of the department has failed to act sufficiently quickly, and has often prioritized readiness at the expense of the health of servicemembers and their families,” the senators wrote. “This failure has adversely affected morale, and, despite the department’s best intentions, undermined readiness.”

The eight-page letter cited several examples, including the coronavirus outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and Esper pushing decisions on implementing social distancing and other guidance to local commanders.

Current military coronavirus cases: As of Friday, 5,171 service members have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, including 114 who have been hospitalized, 1,978 who have recovered and two who have died.

Esper’s stance: In his letter to Inhofe, Esper maintained the Pentagon has been “ahead of need at every step,” arguing officials “have met or exceeded every request for assistance we have received.”

“That said, on behalf of America's 2.9 million service members and DoD civilians, I am disappointed that some, especially committee members, would argue that the Defense Department has demonstrated a ‘failure to adequately respond to the ongoing coronavirus disease,’ ” Esper wrote. “Such a statement does not respect the 62,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines currently deployed across the nation in support of their fellow Americans, typically operating away from their families and usually at risk of their own lives.”


SENATE PANEL PLANS TO SKIP DHS, VA SPENDING BILLS: The Senate Appropriations Committee is likely to skip two of the most controversial annual funding bills, signaling they will save those fights for a larger spending deal or floor votes.

Republicans on the panel say they are hoping to hold committee votes on 10 of the 12 fiscal 2021 government funding bills by the end of June and potentially bring some of those to the floor in June as senators try to get legislation back on track amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"I think we'd have some bills possibly on the floor in June and all of the markups that we're likely to do, which would be at least 10 of them, by the end of June," said Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntWorking together to effectively address patient identification during COVID-19 Trump announces intention to nominate two individuals to serve as FEC members Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid MORE (R-Mo.), who chairs the Appropriations labor, health and human services and education subcommittee.

Timeline up in the air: Pressed about the timeline, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyWorking together to effectively address patient identification during COVID-19 Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: GOP cool to White House's .6T coronavirus price tag | Company layoffs mount as pandemic heads into fall | Initial jobless claims drop to 837,000 MORE (R-Ala.) said, "That would be a worthy goal. We've all talked about that."

"We'd like to, but I said all of this is tentative at the moment. We've been discussing it amongst ourselves," Shelby added on the possibility of being able to bring some funding bills to the floor for votes in June.

Asked about Blunt's prediction that the committee could vote on 10 of the 12 bills, Shelby confirmed that was the plan "at this point."

"To mark up, we want some understanding that we're going to have some cooperation," Shelby said. 

What won’t be brought up: Shelby pointed to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spending bill and a separate bill on military construction and Veterans Affairs (VA).  

"[A] bill that might be susceptible to a big political fight over the wall is one," Shelby said, in a reference to the DHS funding bill.  

Reminder: The new timeline comes after GOP members of the Senate Appropriations Committee met this week to discuss a path forward on the fiscal 2021 funding bills as the coronavirus has upended the normal legislative schedule on Capitol Hill.

The DHS bill has emerged as a perennial headache for lawmakers because of the fight over President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked by platform's pre-election blackout Mnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' Harris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden MORE's border wall. The details over physical barrier funding and restrictions are usually two of the last items to get resolved in large spending deals.

But senators also pointed to the growing cost of VA health care as another early hurdle. Overall, non-defense spending for fiscal 2021 was agreed to as part of a two-year budget deal, meaning that if senators include more money for the VA without changing the budget cap, they have to strip funding from other non-defense programs.

The VA issue: There is some bipartisan support for treating the extra VA health care costs as "emergency" spending, exempting the funding from the bipartisan budget cap.

"Some of us have advocated we ought to use that as emergency, deem emergency spending. Some people don't want to do that that way. Some do. That debate's going on right now," Shelby told The Hill.

He added in a separate discussion with reporters this week that the VA issue was a "a big problem."

"That probably won't be resolved unless it's resolved at the presidential, leadership level," Shelby said.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiAlaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch Bitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Justice Barrett joins court; one week until Election Day MORE (R-Alaska), another member of the Appropriations Committee, said senators were "dealing with and discussing the challenges that are in front of us with ... a VA account and the additional resources there for the mission."



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