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

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 TrumpDalai Lama talks Trump, says European migrants should return to ‘their own land’ McConnell pledges to work with Democratic president on Supreme Court vacancy Trump campaign official: Democratic debate a ‘two-hour infomercial’ for president’s reelection 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 InhofeSenate passes 0B defense bill, leaving Iran vote for Friday 2020 debates complicate Senate plans for vote on Trump’s war authority GOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats MORE (R-Okla.) has blamed Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate passes 0B defense bill, leaving Iran vote for Friday Senate passes .5B border bill, setting up fight with House Senate Health Committee advances bipartisan package to lower health costs 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 KaineSenate passes 0B defense bill, leaving Iran vote for Friday Overnight Defense: Senate sets Friday vote on Iran war authority measure | Trump heads to Japan for G-20 summit | Two US troops killed in Afghanistan Senate to vote Friday on Trump’s Iran war authority MORE (Va.) and Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallSenate passes 0B defense bill, leaving Iran vote for Friday Overnight Defense: Senate sets Friday vote on Iran war authority measure | Trump heads to Japan for G-20 summit | Two US troops killed in Afghanistan Senate to vote Friday on Trump’s Iran war authority 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 HollenCongress moves toward stricter North Korea sanctions Senate passes .5B border bill, setting up fight with House Van Hollen proposes raising estate tax to boost Social Security 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.

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“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 UnCongress moves toward stricter North Korea sanctions North Korea: South must stop trying to mediate nuclear deadlock with US The Hill’s Morning Report – Warren cements front-runner status in first Dem debate 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 Klobuchar2020 Democrats celebrate Supreme Court citizenship question decision McConnell on Democratic criticism: ‘I plead guilty’ Supreme Court rules against Trump on census citizenship question 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 GabbardTrump campaign official: Democratic debate a ‘two-hour infomercial’ for president’s reelection Trump campaign official: Debate showed Democrats don’t ‘represent working Americans’ 5 key questions ahead of Thursday’s Democratic debate 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 PompeoWhat’s Putin up to in the Arctic? Tillerson told lawmakers Kushner didn’t alert him to Saudi meeting Pentagon IDs soldiers killed in Afghanistan MOREJohn BoltonJohn Robert BoltonLive coverage: Democrats face off in first 2020 debate Five things to watch as Trump heads to G-20 in Japan Who is new White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham? 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) John RyanTrump campaign official: Debate showed Democrats don’t ‘represent working Americans’ McConnell on Democratic attacks: ‘I love it’ Meghan McCain praises Tulsi Gabbard’s debate performance 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. 



— The Hill: Trump, Congress set for new showdown on Saudi Arabia

— The Hill: Navy considering perjury charges against witness who confessed during SEAL’s trial: report

— The Hill: Trump directs Pentagon to develop policy allowing service academy athletes to go pro right away

— The Hill: Mark Morgan named new acting chief of Customs and Border Protection

— The Hill: Tillerson told lawmakers Kushner didn’t alert him to Saudi meeting

— The Hill: France’s Macron says he’ll ask Trump to suspend some Iran sanctions

— The Hill: Trump: ‘We’ve been very good to our allies’

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