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: Eight Senate Republicans voted with all 47 Democrats on Thursday to rein in President Trump‘s ability to take military action against Iran, paving the way for a veto showdown with the White House.
Senators voted 55-45 on the resolution, spearheaded by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), that would require Trump to pull any U.S. troops from military hostilities against Iran within 30 day unless he gets congressional approval for the military actions.
The rebuke comes just a week after senators voted to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial.
Which Republicans backed it: GOP senators who supported the resolution argued it was about clawing back some of the war-making authority Congress has ceded to the executive branch in recent decades, and not a personal slight directed at Trump.
“This is not about the presidency. … This really is about the proper allocation of power between the three branches of government,” Lee told reporters. “Congress has ceased to be in the war declaration driver’s seat.”
Lee added that he was a “big supporter of this president” and that voting for the resolution was “about supporting President Trump in his foreign policy and his effort to make sure we don’t get involved too easily, too quickly and in an unconstitutional way in any war.”
“It is … important to reassert the legislative branch’s role regardless of which party occupies the White House,” Collins said, adding that the resolution was “much needed and long overdue.”
The latest confrontation: The vote marked the latest confrontation between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue over foreign policy.
In some instances, those tensions have broadly united those on opposite sides of the aisle. In 2017, Congress overwhelmingly passed new Russia sanctions despite opposition from the administration. And in January 2019, the Senate agreed to a measure that warned Trump against withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Syria — language that was spearheaded by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
But Democrats have also leveraged procedural loopholes that let them force votes over the objections of most Republicans, including McConnell, and pass resolutions with only a simple majority.
Earlier: The Senate marked a historic first in December 2018 when it voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, the first time since the implementation of the War Powers Act in 1973 that the chamber passed a resolution under the law. Republicans, who then controlled the House, blocked the resolution, but Congress passed it again in early 2019 and forced Trump to issue his second veto.
Congress followed that up in July 2019 with legislation to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. That resulted in another three vetoes from Trump, all of which Congress failed to override.
Each of those, similar to Thursday’s vote, passed with the support of Democrats and less than a quarter of the GOP caucus.
The White House’s response: The White House has pledged that the president will veto the resolution if it reaches his desk, arguing that it “fails to account for present reality.”
“This joint resolution is untimely and misguided. Its adoption by Congress could undermine the ability of the United States to protect American citizens whom Iran continues to seek to harm,” the Office of Management and Budget said.
Trump urged Republicans to reject the resolution in a pair of tweets, arguing that “Democrats are only doing this as an attempt to embarrass the Republican Party.”
On the House side: The House passed its own resolution on the matter, but because it’s a concurrent resolution it does not go to the president’s desk and does not traditionally have the force of law. House Democrats have suggested they will take up the Senate resolution, setting up the veto fight with the White House.
The Senate would not have the votes to override a veto. But Kaine argued that even forcing Trump to use a veto could serve as a check on the president’s actions.
PENTAGON TRANSFERS $3.8B TO WALL: The Pentagon is moving $3.8 billion from various weapons programs such as the F-35 fighter jet to pay for President Trump’s southern border wall, according to a notice sent to Congress on Thursday.
The notice sent to Congress said the money is going toward the “support of higher priority items” and is “required to provide support for counter-drug activities of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).”
“DHS has identified areas along the southern border of the United States that are being used by individuals, groups, and transnational criminal organizations as drug smuggling corridors, and determined that the construction of additional physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the United States border is necessary in order to impede and deny drug smuggling activities,” the notice says.
The Pentagon’s statement: In a statement Thursday afternoon, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell said the money will build about 177 miles of border fencing, following DHS’s January request for assistance.
“The Department of Defense is committed to supporting the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to secure the southern border by constructing fences and roads and installing lighting to block drug smuggling corridors,” he said. “We will continue to support DHS and other agencies as needed to keep our homeland is secure.”
Dems’ response: Democrats immediately slammed the move as a raid on military resources for what they called a “vanity project.”
But they put some of the blame on congressional Republicans, who refused to include provisions blocking Trump’s transfer authority in 2020 spending legislation that passed in December.
“While some of our Republican colleagues will lament the President’s decision, they enabled this theft by blocking our efforts to stop the President from raiding defense accounts,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in a joint statement with Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.).
“Until they stand up to President Trump, our national security will continue to be threatened and our Constitutional system of government will continue to be undermined,” they added.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Senate appropriator, said that Trump “has stolen from the men and women of our military, their families, and the American taxpayers all to pay for a failed campaign promise and endanger our national security.”
Republicans also push back: The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas), called for Congress to take action over the latest funding transfer.
“The re-programming announced today is contrary to Congress’s constitutional authority, and I believe that it requires Congress to take action,” Thornberry, who is retiring at the end of his term, said in a statement. “I will be working with my colleagues to determine the appropriate steps to take.
Last year: Congress twice voted to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration, which allowed him to reprogram defense funds for the wall, but were unable to override his vetoes.
What programs are taking a hit: The money being reprogrammed Thursday is being taken under a different executive authority that allows counter-drug funds to be used on the wall.
The notice says that $2.2 billion from the Pentagon’s base fiscal 2020 budget and $1.6 billion from a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account will be transferred to the Pentagon’s counter-drug fund, which will then be used on the wall.
Among the big-ticket items taking a hit is the Air Force’s F-35 program, which will lose $156 million for procurement. The funding “is excess to current programmatic need,” the notice says, adding that “it was based on a higher number of aircraft than” was requested in the fiscal 2021 budget.
In all, aircraft funding will lose $1.4 billion, according to the notice.
Shipbuilding will also take a hit, with the landing helicopter assault replacement program losing $650 million and the expeditionary fast transport program losing $261 million. Money for both programs is “early to current programmatic need,” according to the notice.
Equipment for the National Guard and reserves makes up the bulk of the money being taken from the OCO account at $1.3 billion. Those funds are also “available because they are early to current programmatic need,” the notice says.
ACLU tries to block transfer: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced Thursday that it will ask a federal court to block Trump’s additional border wall funding transfers.
The ACLU will challenge additional transfers by adding the request to its lawsuit against the president filed on behalf of the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition last February, according to a press release.
The suit is disputing the constitutionality of the president’s ability to redirect funding for the wall after Congress had rejected the money in the federal budget, calling it an abuse of his emergency powers.
“Multiple courts have ruled illegal Trump’s pillaging of military funds for his xenophobic border wall,” Dror Ladin, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, said. “Not one court has given his unlawful power grab the stamp of approval. We’ll be back in court to block these additional, unauthorized transfers.”
ESPER: US, TALIBAN NEAR 7-DAY ‘REDUCTION IN VIOLENCE’ DEAL: The United States and the Taliban have negotiated a deal for a seven-day “reduction in violence” in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday.
Speaking to reporters at the conclusion of a NATO meeting in Brussels, Esper said the United States is now consulting with its allies about the deal.
“The United States and the Taliban have negotiated a proposal for a seven-day reduction in violence,” Esper said. “We’ve said all along that the best, if not the only, solution in Afghanistan is a political agreement. Progress has been made on this front, and we’ll have more to report on that soon, I hope.”
A conditional approval: Esper’s comments come after several reports this week that President Trump gave conditional approval for a peace deal with the Taliban, pending its ability to follow through on an initial reduction in violence agreement.
The limited details: Citing the ongoing consultation with allies, Esper would not elaborate on the details of the reduction in violence agreement, including whether U.S. troops would continue conducting counterterrorism operations against ISIS and al Qaeda.
Esper did say the United States views the weeklong period on the table as long enough to judge the Taliban’s seriousness.
“It is our view that seven days, for now, is sufficient, but in all things, our approach to this process will be conditions-based,” Esper said. “So it will be a continual evaluative process as we go forward, if we go forward.”
The background: The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan on a dual mission. One is to train, advise and assist Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban, while the other is to conduct counterterrorism operations against groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS.
Trump, who often rails against so-called endless wars, has been working to end America’s longest war, with an eye toward notching the win ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
The United States and the Taliban were close to a deal last year, but Trump called off a planned meeting at Camp David to finalize the agreement after a Taliban attack killed a U.S. service member. The planned meeting was also widely criticized for honoring the Taliban with a Camp David invite days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that precipitated that Afghanistan War.
After he canceled the Camp David meeting, Trump declared talks with the Taliban “dead,” but negotiations resumed a couple of months later.
A death ahead of the deal: A U.S. service member was killed in a “non-combat related incident” in Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced on Thursday.
Spc. Branden Tyme Kimball, 21, from Central Point, Ore., died Wednesday at Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in the country, according to the Defense Department statement.
The statement did not provide further details about the incident but said it is under investigation.
He is the seventh U.S. service member to die in Afghanistan in 2020, with four of the deaths combat-related.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed and six service members injured on Saturday when someone wearing an Afghan army uniform opened fire on them and Afghan troops with a machine gun in Nangahar province.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
— The Hill: Judge orders Pentagon to halt work on cloud-computing contract amid Amazon challenge
— The Hill: The 8 Republicans who voted to curb Trump’s Iran war powers
— The Hill: Pompeo to testify on Iran in February
— The Hill: Trump administration mulling special negotiator for nuke talks with Russia: report
— The Hill: Sudan settles with families of USS Cole victims
— The Hill: Senators to meet with Zelensky after impeachment trial
— The Hill: Opinion: Syria is not a lost cause for the US — but it is getting close