Overnight Defense: House passes $1.9T COVID-19 relief bill | McConnell says Capitol security reminds him of 'last visit to Kabul' | Austin, Blinken heading to South Korea, Japan in first overseas trips

Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense.  I’m Rebecca Kheel, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pen...


Happy Wednesday 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: House approves $1.9T COVID-19 relief

The House passed President BidenJoe BidenManchin cements key-vote status in 50-50 Senate The Memo: How the COVID year upended politics Post-pandemic plans for lawmakers: Chuck E. Cheese, visiting friends, hugging grandkids MORE’s sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package Wednesday.

The bill passed in a starkly partisan 220-211 vote, sending the legislation to the White House and clinching Democrats’ first big legislative victory in the Biden era.

No Republican lawmakers backed the legislation, which will become law as much of the nation marks one year of lockdowns from the COVID-19 era. Just one Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden (Maine), opposed the measure.

Defense connections: The bill includes an extension of what’s known as Section 3610 authorities, which allows the Pentagon to reimburse contractors for delays and other added costs due to the pandemic. The extension goes to Sept. 30.

The bill also included a key priority for veterans by closing the so-called 90/10 loophole that incentivized for-profit schools to target GI Bill recipients. Under federal law, for-profit schools have to collect at least 10 percent of their revenue from sources other than federal education funds, but GI Bill funding wasn’t being counted toward that.

What’s next: Biden has said he will sign the measure as soon as it reaches his desk, with the White House saying he’s expected to sign it on Friday. The president is set to address the nation Thursday evening on the coronavirus pandemic.

 

CAPITOL GUARD DUTY EXTENDED

If you missed it Tuesday night, the National Guard is now slated to stay at the U.S. Capitol through at least May 23.

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: House passes .9T COVID-19 relief bill | McConnell says Capitol security reminds him of ‘last visit to Kabul’ | Austin, Blinken heading to South Korea, Japan in first overseas trips Pentagon announces climate working group Top Biden officials to meet with Chinese in Alaska MORE approved the Capitol Police request to keep about 2,300 Guardsmen there for another two months and change.

“This decision was made after a thorough review of the request and after close consideration of its potential impact on readiness,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement.

During the extension, Pentagon officials will “work with the U.S. Capitol Police to incrementally reduce the National Guard footprint as conditions allow,” Kirby added.

What’s the threat?: At a Wednesday press briefing at the Pentagon, Kirby was repeatedly pressed on why Austin approved the request.

He would not get into the threat assessment, nor whether civilian law enforcement support was considered instead of the Guard, saying those were questions for Capitol Police.

“It is also about helping the Capitol Police in a new environment right now as they begin to understand what requirements and capabilities they’re going to need to perfect and improve upon going forward,” Kirby said.

Pressed on whether Capitol Police has detailed to the Pentagon a specific threat, Kirby said the department “has had visibility into the threat environment that has governed the presence of some of the troops in the Capitol complex.”

McConnell jeers: Asked Wednesday about the continued National Guard presence, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: House passes .9T COVID-19 relief bill | McConnell says Capitol security reminds him of ‘last visit to Kabul’ | Austin, Blinken heading to South Korea, Japan in first overseas trips OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate confirms Michael Regan as EPA chief | Biden delays Trump changes to lead and copper drinking water rule | Trump FWS faulted for lack of opinions  McConnell boasted that GOP group had outraised Trump’s: report MORE (R-Ky.) blasted the level of security at the Capitol as an overreaction.

“I think we’ve overdone it. … There have been no serious threats against the Capitol. I think we’re way overreacting to the current need,” McConnell told reporters. 

“I’m extremely uncomfortable with the fact that my constituents can’t come to the Capitol. With all this razor wire around the complex, it reminds me of my last visit to Kabul,” he added.

McConnell acknowledged that there would likely need to be a change to security rules at the Capitol, but reiterated that he thought the current restrictions are too much. In addition to the National Guardsmen presence, perimeter fencing remains up around the complex.

“I think we are continuing to overreact based on current threat levels to what is needed here at the Capitol. It looks terrible to have the beacon of our democracy surrounded by razorwire and National Guard troops,” McConnell said.

 

AUSTIN, BLINKEN HEADING TO ASIA

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenOvernight Defense: House passes .9T COVID-19 relief bill | McConnell says Capitol security reminds him of ‘last visit to Kabul’ | Austin, Blinken heading to South Korea, Japan in first overseas trips Fighting in Ethiopia threatens US security interests Top Biden officials to meet with Chinese in Alaska MORE are taking their first official trip overseas next week, and it’s to Asia, in a signal of the importance the Biden administration is placing on the region.

Specifically, Austin and Blinken are heading to Japan and South Korea, where they will meet with their counterparts in visits meant to “reaffirm the United States’ commitment to strengthening our alliances and to highlight cooperation that promotes peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.

A Pentagon statement on the trip similarly said the stop in Japan will “ emphasize that the U.S.-Japan Alliance has never been more resolute and resilient” and that the stop in South Korea will stress that the U.S.-South Korea “alliance remains a linchpin of peace, security, and prosperity in Northeast Asia.”

Austin’s other stops: Before heading to Japan, Austin will stop in Hawaii to meet with troops and commanders at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command headquarters.

After the South Korea stop, Austin is scheduled to go to India, where he will meet with his counterpart and other national security leaders to “discuss deepening the U.S.-India Major Defense Partnership and advancing cooperation between our countries for a free, prosperous and open Indo-Pacific and Western Indian Ocean Region,” the Pentagon said.

Blinken’s other stop: When Blinken is done in South Korea, he’s heading to Alaska for the Biden’s administration first meeting with Chinese officials.

In Alaska, he’ll be joined by national security adviser Jake SullivanJake SullivanOvernight Defense: House passes .9T COVID-19 relief bill | McConnell says Capitol security reminds him of ‘last visit to Kabul’ | Austin, Blinken heading to South Korea, Japan in first overseas trips Top Biden officials to meet with Chinese in Alaska Biden has a mandate to compete with China MORE for a meeting with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, a member of the Politburo.

Asked about the meeting during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday, Blinken described it as “an important opportunity, for us, to lay out in very frank terms the many concerns we have with Beijing’s actions and behavior that are challenging the security, prosperity and values of the United States and our allies.”

He said they would “raise [a] host of issues” and “also explore whether there are avenues for cooperation” with China.

 

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a business meeting to consider pending nomination at 9:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/3ceKwU0

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the final recommendations of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service at 9:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/38tK9E2

A House Foreign Affairs Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on the crisis in Yemen with testimony from outside experts at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/3vbzpUz

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee behind closed-doors at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/38qrJUM

 

ICYMI

— The Hill: Pentagon announces climate working group

— The Hill: South Korea to pay more to house US troops

— The Hill: Opinion: Beijing has a plethora of military options against Taiwan after 2022

— The Hill: Opinion: Fighting in Ethiopia threatens US security interests

— Washington Post: Veteran charged in Capitol riot once served in Marine One squadron, officials say

— McClatchy: Pentagon may use involuntary activations to keep Guard forces at Capitol through May

— Military Times: Trust in the military is dropping significantly, new survey suggests



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