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Overnight Defense: Biden proposes $753B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists

Overnight Defense: Biden proposes $753B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists
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Happy Friday 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: President BidenJoe Biden28 Senate Democrats sign statement urging Israel-Hamas ceasefire Franklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Schools face new pressures to reopen for in-person learning MORE’s barebones first budget outline is out, and defense is getting a few extra dollars.

Biden’s proposal calls for $753 billion for the overall defense budget. Of that, $715 billion would go to the Pentagon.

A $753 billion defense budget would be a modest increase over this year’s $740 billion, as would a $715 billion Pentagon budget compared to this year’s $704 billion.

There’s not much more detail for now about what the money would go toward, but the document released by the White House on Friday highlights priorities including competing with China, investing in the Navy fleet, continuing nuclear modernization and mitigating the effects of climate change on Defense Department facilities.

Bye-bye, OCO: One big change the proposal calls for is the elimination of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The money that has been in the account would instead go into the base defense budget.

OCO was meant to be an emergency war fund, but critics on both sides of the aisle said it has been increasingly used as a slush fund to skirt a budget caps law since it was not subject to the caps.

The law that set those caps expired this year, ending the need to use OCO to get around it.

Jeers: There were many.

For Republicans, the proposal was not high enough.

In a joint statement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the top Republicans on the Senate Armed Services, Intelligence, Budget and Appropriations committees said the proposed budget sends “a terrible signal not only to our adversaries in Beijing and Moscow, but also to our allies and partners.”

“President Biden recently said, ‘If we don’t get moving, [China] is going to eat our lunch,’” McConnell and Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe (Okla.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.) said in the statement.

“Today’s budget proposal signals to China that they should set the table. While President Biden has prioritized spending trillions on liberal wish list priorities here at home, funding for America’s military is neglected.”

For progressives, the request was too high.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) expressed “serious concerns” with the defense request.

“At a time when the U.S. already spends more on the military than the next 12 nations combined, it is time for us to take a serious look at the massive cost overruns, the waste and fraud that currently exists at the Pentagon,” Sanders said in a statement.

Cheers: At least one top Democrat with oversight of the defense budget indicated she believes the request is on the right track.

“The proposed 1.5 percent increase for the Department of Defense will sustain readiness and modernization while we also focus on divesting from ineffective legacy programs and eliminating wasteful spending,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, said in a statement.

Stay tuned: A more detailed budget request that specifies what those billions of dollars will buy is expected later this spring.

And the criticism from the left and right points to a tough brawl ahead in Congress over the defense budget.

PENTAGON MOVES TOWARD NEW SCREENING FOR EXTREMISTS

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinPush to combat sexual assault in military reaches turning point Overnight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate MORE is moving to set up new screening procedures at the Pentagon as part of an effort to weed out extremists in the military, according to a memo released Friday.

The immediate steps include setting up a working group tasked with finding ways to address the issue as well as launching a study on extremist behavior in the ranks, Austin wrote in the memo.

The Pentagon chief said he wants the working group to review and update the military’s definition of extremism, create standardized questionnaires to screen recruits with current or previous extremist behavior, and come up with new training and procedures for veterans to deflect and report the targeting of them by extremist groups after they leave service. 

Context: Friday's memo comes after Austin ordered a 60-day, force-wide stand down in early February to address extremism in the military after the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol by supporters of former President Trump.

The stand-down order sought to gain a clearer picture, and service secretaries met with Austin earlier on Friday to provide their recommendations.

“One consistent thing that he did hear was that the force wants better guidance...about what extremist activity really is,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Friday.

“Anecdotally, the service secretaries shared with him what bubbled up from the ranks ... that in many but not all cases people did express that they understand that this is a problem that some of them have experienced personally.”

Banning membership? One major obstacle preventing Pentagon officials from getting a handle on the problem is a 2012 Defense policy that doesn’t prohibit a service member from joining groups with more extreme or violent ideology as long as they don’t actively participate in fundraising, recruiting, demonstrating at a rally, training, organizing or distributing material — allowing such troops to often go unnoticed.

Friday’s actions did not go as far as banning current service members from being members of such organizations, but Kirby said it was “something that the secretary has indicated that he wants the working group to look at.”

POW/MIA FLAG BACK ATOP WHITE HOUSE

The White House has returned the prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action (POW/MIA) flag to its previous position atop the White House residence, after it was moved to a different location on the White House grounds during the Trump administration.

“In keeping with the president and first lady’s commitment to honor the sacrifices of all those who serve, including veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors, the president and first lady have restored the POW-MIA flag to its original location on top of the White House residence,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing Friday afternoon.

Background: Former President Trump signed a law in 2019 that mandated the flag be displayed with the U.S. flag at designated federal locations, including the White House. The flag was flown at the White House for some time but moved to another location on the grounds and was apparently never returned last year.

Bipartisan push: Friday’s move followed a bipartisan push for the POW/MIA flag to be restored to its former location. Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote to President Biden days after he took office asking that the flag be returned to the top of the White House.

ON TAP FOR MONDAY

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville will speak at a virtual Washington Post event at noon. https://wapo.st/39Z1KEy

Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, surgeon general of the Army, will participate in the Association of the U.S. Army’s Noon Report webinar at noon. https://bit.ly/3wC0bpI

ICYMI

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-- Associated Press: India objects to U.S. Navy ship’s patrol without consent

-- Washington Post: Iraq’s anti-American militias aren’t just Iranian proxies. That helps explain their troubles.