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: The House is back in session this week, joining the Senate, and funding the government before money runs out in a couple weeks is a top to-do item.
Congress is expected to pass a stopgap spending measure. But over the weekend, The Hill’s Jordain Carney looked at how Democrats are divided over how long the continuing resolution (CR) should last.
The November election is complicating the Democratic strategy in the looming government shutdown fight.
Feeling momentum as they aim to win back the Senate and the White House, Democrats are divided over whether to agree to the GOP-favored stopgap bill that lasts into December or push for a longer deal to fund the government into early 2021.
A shorter bill, supporters hope, would force Congress to reach a larger funding deal before the end of the year. But a bill that lasts into next year would take a lame duck shutdown fight off the table and give Democrats more leverage if Democratic nominee Joe Biden is elected president.
“We’ve gone back and forth, it’s a split decision in the caucus. If you can tell us what happens Nov. 3 it is a lot easier. … The uncertainty about the presidential election is an element,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said when asked about the length of a bill.
Neither Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) nor Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) have publicly endorsed a timeline. A House Democratic aide noted that behind-the-scenes negotiations about what the strategy should be are ongoing.
Why it matters to defense: The Pentagon is no fan of CRs or shutdowns, warning that readiness is harmed by unpredictable funding.
Defense officials also often warn that the longer CRs go on the more damage is done to the military because the stopgap measures generally prohibit starting new programs or adjusting existing ones.
You’ll recall we reported last week that the administration asked for several exceptions to that rule, including flexibility to fund the Space Force, new submarines and a new nuclear warhead.
AFGHANISTAN DEVELOPMENTS: Much-delayed talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban started this weekend in Doha, Qatar, a historic development that is raising hope, however little, of ending two decades of war.
Back in the United States, a House panel said Monday it has secured an agreement for the Trump administration’s envoy to Afghan peace talks to testify before the committee after it issued a subpoena threat.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, will testify before the House Oversight and Reform National Security Subcommittee when he returns from his trip to Qatar, the panel said in a statement Monday.
“I am grateful to U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad for agreeing to testify before the Subcommittee on National Security about the United States’ negotiations with the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan,” subcommittee Chairman Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said in a statement.
“I look forward to examining the Trump administration’s strategy, including potential impacts for Afghan women and U.S. security interests in the region,” he added. “After nearly two-decades of conflict, the American people deserve to hear directly from the administration about how it plans to bring a responsible end to the war in Afghanistan.”
Monday’s announcement comes after Democrats on the committee demanded testimony from Pentagon and State Department officials at a hearing this month. In a letter to both departments, Democrats, who said they had been seeking testimony for a year, threatened to use a “compulsory process” if officials did not agree to appear before the committee.
Lynch spoke with Khalilzad on Thursday, at which point he agreed to testify before the subcommittee and also offered to provide members with a classified briefing, according to the statement issued by the committee Monday.
It is unclear if the panel is still seeking testimony from the Pentagon. A committee spokesperson did not immediately have an answer on whether the panel is still working on getting Pentagon testimony or if Khalilzad’s commitment satisfies its demand.
Top general still scouring bounty intelligence: Meanwhile, the top U.S. general overseeing troops in the Middle East said in a new interview he hasn’t seen direct evidence corroborating the existence of Russian program offering bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops, though he said the U.S. military is still investigating.
“It just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told NBC News in an interview published Monday.
“We continue to look for that evidence,” McKenzie added. “I just haven’t seen it yet. But … it’s not a closed issue.”
McKenzie also said intelligence he has seen is “very concerning, very worrisome,” but that he “just couldn’t see the final connection.”
He also suggested there’s conflicting information and interpretations of the intelligence.
“I want to know, because I won’t hesitate to take action if that’s the case. I just haven’t seen it. I just haven’t seen it. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, but nothing was out there that I could grasp that connect together in a pattern that I would consider actionable,” he said.
TRUMP LEANS INTO FOREIGN POLICY: The election is just 50 days away.
Over the weekend, we took a look at how President Trump is leaning into foreign policy in the final stretch of the race amid a slew of domestic headaches.
Over the past month, Trump has helped broker a peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, facilitate normalized economic ties between Serbia and Kosovo, and reduce troop levels in Iraq. On Friday, he announced that Bahrain also would be normalizing diplomatic ties with Israel.
The White House has touted the moves as examples of the president delivering on his agenda and leading as he faces widespread disapproval from Americans for his handling of the coronavirus, which has claimed almost 200,000 lives in the U.S.
But foreign policy is rarely a top issue for voters on Election Day. And any gains by Trump on the world stage are likely to be overshadowed by domestic matters such as his handling of protests against racial injustice, his reported comments disparaging the military, the deepest recession since the Great Depression and audio tapes revealing he purposely downplayed the public health threat of COVID-19.
“Unfortunately for them, the narrative every day is an increasing death toll and an economy on the brink,” said Doug Heye, former Republican National Committee (RNC) communications director. “But it does give them something positive to talk about and demonstrate accomplishment and leadership.”
Read more here.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Jay Raymond and other officials will speak at Day 2 of the Air Force Association’s virtual 2020 Air, Space and Cyber Conference starting at 9 a.m. https://bit.ly/3inSsEb
Booz Allen Hamilton will host a virtual event on directed energy in “gray zone” conflicts, featuring Joint Intermediate Force Capabilities Office director Col. Wendell Leimbach, Jr., at noon. https://bit.ly/3c0BtFv
A House Armed Services Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on Defense Department use of PFAS with testimony from Defense officials at 1 p.m. https://bit.ly/3mlTOBT
— The Hill: VA hit by data breach impacting 46,000 veterans
— The Hill: US Marine convicted of killing transgender woman deported from Philippines
— The Hill: Poll: 61 percent believe Biden has more respect for military than Trump
— The Hill: Opinion: The lost generation in American foreign policy
— Stars and Stripes: Sewage from US Embassy, NATO headquarters dumped into Kabul River due to aging infrastructure
— Task and Purpose: ‘This all could have been prevented’ – Inside the disappearance and death of Vanessa Guillén
— Associated Press: Expect US election to have consequences for troops overseas