The Topline: Congressional aides say the Pentagon spending bill and the other appropriations measures are likely to be released later Monday evening as appropriators put the final touches on the omnibus package.
The Pentagon spending bill, which has already been completed, is expected to address one portion of a major fight sparked by the budget deal that set Defense spending for 2014 at $520 billion.
The budget deal authors say the disability benefits were included due to a “technical error” and they were not supposed to be part of the greater $6 billion cut to the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for working-age military retirees.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) took aim on Monday at other benefits that the Pentagon said would be affected by the COLA cuts, including survivor benefits and special-combat-related compensation.
Ayotte, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of the $6 billion pension cut, said the inclusion of survivor benefits was one more reason to repeal the cuts to retirement benefits.
“The more I press the Pentagon for answers, the more I learn how egregious the military benefit cuts are in the budget deal,” Ayotte said.
“The cost of living adjustment cuts unfairly shortchange military retirees, military survivors, and the combat-injured to pay for more Washington spending,” she said.
But a Senate aide said that cuts to the three programs Ayotte highlighted would be restored in the government-funding measure.
“At the end of the day, this will all be addressed," the aide said.
Ayotte and other Republicans have introduced amendments to the three-month unemployment insurance bill that would offset both the extension of jobless benefits and the cuts to military pensions.
As for the Defense spending bill, appropriators are expected to cut roughly $25 billion from their earlier measures, in order to meet the $520 billion budget cap that was included in the budget deals.
No major cuts are anticipated, and appropriators have said the oft-criticized F-35 and littoral combat ship programs have no big changes.
Obama downplays Gates’s charges: President Obama brushed aside questions about his former Defense secretary’s memoir on Monday, praising Robert Gates’s “outstanding” service.
Obama dismissed questions about his commitment to the war in Afghanistan, after Gates wrote in his book that Obama did not believe in his own war strategy.
“Just as I have continued to have faith in our mission, most importantly, I’ve had unwavering confidence in our troops and their performance in some of the most difficult situations imaginable,” Obama said.
“And that job is not yet done. And I do think it's important for Americans to recognize that we still have young men and women in harm's way, along with coalition partners who are continuing to make sacrifices, and we need to see this job all the way through,” he said.
Obama also sidestepped a question about whether Gates should have waited to publish his memoir until the conclusion of his presidency.
"During his tenure here, Secretary Gates was an outstanding secretary of Defense, a good friend of mine, and I'll always be grateful for his service," Obama said.
Obama says ‘give diplomacy a chance’: President Obama also urged Congress to hold off on passing any new Iran sanctions legislation, urging lawmakers to “give diplomacy a chance.”
The president said that the negotiating window created by the implementation of the interim nuclear deal would give world powers the “time and space” they need to strike a permanent agreement with Iran.
"It's going to be difficult, it's going to be challenging, but ultimately this is how diplomacy should work," Obama said.
The president has threatened to veto any new sanctions legislation while negotiations are ongoing. A bipartisan sanctions bill in the Senate has attracted 59 co-sponsors, including more than a dozen Democrats.
Kerry explores Syria cease-fire: Secretary of State John Kerry said he believed that ceasefires in the three-year Syrian civil war were possible, after he met in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the United Nations Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
"We talked today about the possibility of trying to encourage a ceasefire. Maybe a localized ceasefire in Aleppo,” Kerry said at a news conference in Paris.
Lavrov said Syrian President Bashar Assad has suggested he’d open up routes to besieged areas.
Kerry made the remark a day after he said he was "confident" that the Syrian opposition would show up to a Jan. 22 peace conference in Geneva, Switzerland, where the U.S. and Russian officials hope a peace deal can be negotiated.
Benghazi transcripts released: The House Armed Services Committee on Monday afternoon released declassified transcripts from closed Benghazi hearings that took place over the summer and fall.
The six redacted transcripts include interviews with U.S. Africa Command's Gen. Carter Ham and with Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The transcripts come ahead of an Armed Services report on the hearings that will be released later this week, and were part of the committee's examination on military efforts before, during and after the attack.
In Case You Missed It:
— Iran talks to resume in February
— US ship ready to destroy Syria weapons
— Report: NSA thwarted few terror plots
— Gates disappointed by memoir reaction
— Kerry confident rebels will attend peace talks
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