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Overnight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire

Overnight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire
© Greg Nash

Happy Monday 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: Congress returns to town this week for a busy sprint to the end of the year.

Among the items on the to-do list is wrapping up work on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and the biggest hurdle to ticking off that box is still the fight over renaming Confederate-named military bases.

Time is running out to prevent 2020 from being the first time in 60 years that Congress doesn’t send an NDAA to the president’s desk.

The House is scheduled to leave for the year Dec. 11, and the chamber’s first votes this week aren’t until Wednesday evening.

Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBoebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report GOP divided over Liz Cheney's future Pelosi mum on when House will send impeachment article to Senate MORE (D-Md.) said lawmakers are urged to stay in D.C. after last votes Friday since conversations on bills including the NDAA are ongoing and the bills “will be considered by the House as soon as they are ready.”

The Senate, meanwhile, is scheduled to leave town after Dec. 18.

Democrats appear to be holding firm on keeping the requirement to rename bases in the bill, with a Democratic House aide telling The Hill on Monday that after talks last week among the caucus, “the decision was made to hold strong on the need for a provision to rename bases in the final bill; either the House version, the Senate version or a melding of the two.”

Government funding: Also on the to-do list is funding the government past Dec. 11, when the current funding bill will expire.

Last week, negotiators reached a deal on spending levels for the 12 fiscal 2021 appropriations bills, but specifics within each bill are still being haggled over.

One question hanging over the negotiations is whether Trump will agree to sign a full-year funding package for all 12 bills instead of a continuing resolution, which would maintain funding at current levels until early next year. 

Over the weekend, The Hill’s Jordain Carney broke down Congress’ year end-to-do list, including the funding and NDAA battles. Catch up here.

IRAN ASSASSINATION ADDS HURDLES TO BIDEN PLANS: If you missed it over the holiday weekend, a top Iran nuclear scientist was assassinated Friday, with Tehran blaming Israel for the killing.

The episode is raising regional tensions and presenting new challenges for President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenFear of insider attack prompts additional FBI screening of National Guard troops: AP Iran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries MORE's pledge to reengage with Tehran.

The killing quickly led to recriminations from Iran’s leaders and could embolden hard-liners who do not want to see the two countries rebuild their relations.

Israel has not commented on the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, known as the father of Iran's nuclear program, but is widely suspected of having carried it out.

Biden’s allies argue the assassination was a criminal act that has recklessly raised tensions in the region and was aimed at undermining the president-elect’s goal of putting the U.S. back in the international nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated by the Obama administration and fiercely opposed by Israel and the Trump administration.

“This was a criminal act & highly reckless,” John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanThe biggest example of media malfeasance in 2020 is... Meet Biden's pick to lead the US intelligence community Sunday shows: Health officials anticipate vaccine distribution, warn of worsening pandemic MORE, who served as CIA director under former President Obama, wrote on Twitter. “It risks lethal retaliation & a new round of regional conflict. Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage & to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits.”

What happened: Fakhrizadeh was killed Friday in an ambush on the outskirts of Tehran. At Fakhrizadeh’s funeral on Monday, a top Iranian official accused Israel of using “electronic devices” to kill him remotely.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE previously singled out Fakhrizadeh for his role in Iran’s nuclear program, warning the world to “remember that name” during a 2018 speech revealing an archive of stolen Iranian nuclear plans.

Fakhrizadeh’s death comes just shy of a year after a U.S. drone strike killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, an event that brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of war.

Iran, which has already pledged further retaliation for the Soleimani killing, is also vowing a response to Fakhrizadeh's death, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling for “definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it.”

Why it matters: Eliminating Fakhrizadeh is unlikely to disrupt the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions, experts argue.

But the attack is testing Tehran’s patience in preserving a path to negotiations with the Biden administration and the former vice president’s push to bring the U.S. back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name for the 2015 nuclear deal.

“The JCPOA was the real target, [with] Dr. Fakhrizadeh just a collateral, and probably not the last until the moment Biden is sworn into office,” said Ali Afoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington who recently published a book on political succession in Iran.

“This said, I am somewhat impressed by the acumen of the political leadership in Tehran: The Islamic Republic has hitherto practiced strategic patience in response to Israel's attempts at luring it into a direct confrontation, and I'm not expecting change in that behavior in the course of the next couple of weeks. This is good news for the Biden administration and the prospects for U.S.-Iran negotiations,” he added.

Lawmaker reaction: Several prominent progressive Democrats have raised concerns the assassination was meant to derail any forthcoming diplomatic efforts from the Biden administration.

“If the primary purpose of the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh was to make it harder to restart the Iran nuclear agreement, then this assassination does not make America, Israel or the world safer,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster Democratic senator: COVID-19 relief is priority over impeachment trial Lawmakers push back on late Trump terror designation for Yemen's Houthis MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote on Twitter.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden tax-hike proposals face bumpy road ahead Senate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate MORE (I-Vt.) tweeted that “diplomacy, not murder, is the best path forward,” while Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaHouse Democrats introduce measures to oppose Trump's bomb sale to Saudis House impeaches Trump for second time — with some GOP support Stacey Abrams gets kudos for work in Georgia runoff election MORE (D-Calif.) warned on Twitter that “we cannot let anyone drag us into a new war.”

“This much is clear: the proven way to restrain Iran’s nuclear program is through relentless diplomacy,” Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroSunday shows preview: Washington prepares for an inauguration and impeachment; coronavirus surges across the US Pelosi names 9 impeachment managers Lawmaker to unveil bill ensuring nothing — 'no airport, no highway, no school' — is named after Trump MORE (D-Texas), who is running to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in his own tweet. “If the cynical goal of this killing is to hinder a return to the Iran deal, Americans and our allies are less safe.”

Global reaction: Fakhrizadeh’s assassination has also sparked pushback from Gulf nations allied with Israel that have spoken out against Biden’s promise to negotiate with Tehran.

The United Arab Emirates on Monday condemned the assassination as “heinous,” and Bahrain called for “maximum restraint” to reduce tensions and avoid a larger-scale conflict. Both countries signed a normalization agreement with Israel earlier this year.

U.S. allies in Europe also expressed concerns about deteriorating relations, with the European Union saying in a statement Saturday that Fakhrizadeh’s assassination was a “criminal act” that ran counter to respect for human rights and urging “maximum restraint” to avoid further escalating tensions.

USS BONHOMME RICHARD GETTING SCRAPPED: The Navy will scrap the USS Bonhomme Richard after a fire burned aboard the amphibious assault ship for nearly five days in July, rendering it unsalvageable, the service announced Monday.

After “thorough consideration,” the Navy has decided to decommission the ship “due to the extensive damage” from the blaze, the service said in a statement.

“We did not come to this decision lightly,” Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite said in the release. “Following an extensive material assessment in which various courses of action were considered and evaluated, we came to the conclusion that it is not fiscally responsible to restore her.”

The Navy estimated that repairing the ship could cost more than $3 billion and take between five and seven years, a price tag and timeline that service leaders did not find feasible.

A separate plan to rebuild the ship for another purpose was also deemed a no-go, as it could cost more than $1 billion, as much as or more than a newly built hospital ship, submarine tender or command-and-control vessel.

Background: The Navy is still investigating the cause of the fire that began as the ship was in the port at Naval Base San Diego. 

It is known that the fire first broke out in a lower cargo area where cardboard and drywall supplies were kept. The small aircraft carrier that transports Marines was undergoing maintenance at the shipyard when the blaze began, which made the fire suppression system inoperable at the time.

About 40 sailors and 23 civilians were treated for minor injuries, including heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, after hundreds of sailors and federal firefighters battled the flames from inside and outside the ship.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond will provide virtual remarks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Space Summit at 1 p.m. https://bit.ly/3oaKSzd

The Arms Control Association will host its annual meeting virtually with speakers including Sens. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySenate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster Biden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs Flags, signs and other items left behind in Capitol riot to be preserved as historical artifacts MORE (D-Ore.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial With Senate at stake, Georgia is on all our minds Build trust in vaccines by investing in community workers MORE (D-N.Y.) at 12:30 p.m. https://bit.ly/36mWhG1

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Trump's NATO ambassador pledges 'seamless' transition to Biden administration

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-- Stars and Stripes: Afghan pilot says he's been told to rejoin air force or leave US protection

-- Associated Press: Charging the ‘Beatles’: Inside the case against IS militants

-- New York Times: Afghan leader digs in on peace talks despite progress, officials say