OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate bills fail on sequester’s eve

President Obama and Vice President Biden are meeting with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders Friday morning, but no 11th-hour fixes are expected to come out of it.

Even if they did miraculously come to an agreement, both the House and Senate have already left town for the weekend.

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All that means the $85 billion in cuts for fiscal 2013 will be in effect, including $46 billion in defense. The automatic could be mostly reversed if a solution is found quickly, and many lawmakers are looking to the expiration of the continuing resolution at the end of March as a possible date — though there’s skepticism that the sequester will be solved then.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has criticized his own party’s role in the run-up to sequester, voted against both the Republican and Democratic bills. Graham favored an alternative plan from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) that did not receive a vote.

Graham has proposed a “grand bargain” to stop sequestration, and says he’s willing to put $600 billion in new revenues on the table if Democrats agree to entitlement reforms.

That plan has not been embraced by congressional leaders yet, although Graham said some senators from both parties have expressed interest to him about it.

But with sequestration here, Graham did not mince his words about the role Congress has played in failing to stop the cuts.

“How does a member of Congress go on a military base and look anybody in the eye, and say, ‘Hey, thank you for what you have done in the last 11 years,’ after what we did to them today?” Graham told reporters.

McKeon to talk sequester Friday: As congressional leaders will be meeting with the president Friday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and his lieutenants on the committee will be holding a press conference calling for a solution to the cuts.

McKeon has long warned about the danger of the cuts to the military, and has introduced two bills to stop the cuts in 2013, which have not gained any traction.

He’ll be joined Friday by six Republican Armed Services subcommittee chairmen to call for an end to the cuts and a focus on entitlements.

Unlike Graham, who says both parties are at fault for sequester, McKeon has placed sequestration squarely on President Obama’s shoulders for his refusal to work with Republicans and accept entitlement reform. 

Brennan nomination gets smoother sailing: John Brennan, the White House's counterterrorism chief and pick to lead CIA, won't face the same partisan fight that bogged down Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's confirmation, according to Senate Republicans.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said there were very few parallels between GOP opposition to Hagel's confirmation and Senate GOP frustrations over the Brennan nomination.

"There was a lot of opposition, due to qualifications" over the Hagel bid, according to Grassley. "I do not think you are going to have [the same] opposition over qualifications for Brennan."

Those differences, he added, all but guarantee the White House counterterrorism chief will have a smoother path toward confirmation, once the full Senate takes up the bid.

But before all that can happen, Brennan has to secure confirmation from members of the Senate Intelligence panel, which could take a few more days to lock in.

On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) postponed the panel's vote on Brennan's nomination to next week, according to a Senate aide.

This is the second time committee members have opted to delay a vote on Brennan's confirmation since his confirmation hearings before the panel on Feb. 7. The Senate Intelligence Committee had been expected to vote on the nomination Thursday.

The opposition to Brennan is rooted in the ongoing battle between Senate Democrats and the White House over information about the CIA's armed drone program and Brennan's participation in the White House's initial response to last September's terror attack in Benghazi, Libya.

That growing frustration among committee members over the White House's disclosure delays was quickly reaching a breaking point, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters on Thursday.

"I am not particularly interested in holding up [Brennan's] nomination," McCain said. However, given the administration's lackluster response to queries from Capitol Hill, lawmakers "deserve answers" on both topics, he said.

Tests continue on grounded F-35s: DOD is pressing ahead with its tip-to-tail review of the F-35 fleet, in an attempt to find out whether critical cracks in one fighter engine's turbine have spread into other fighter jets.

DOD and Joint Strike Fighter program officials declared the 17 test aircraft in the JSF fleet "all cleared" initial inspections, F-35 spokeswoman Kyra Hawn told The Hill on Thursday.

But officials are continuing to pour through test and flight data from those test aircraft, to see if flight conditions or any of the testing exercises could have caused the engine turbine crack that ultimately grounded the fleet, she added.

Program officials are also in the midst of rigorous inspections and evaluations on the 34 operational F-35 fighters based at Air Force and Marine Corps air bases in Florida and Arizona, according to Hawn.

The entire JSF fleet remains banned from flight duty as DOD and program officials continue their inspection work. With a total cost estimate at more than $400 billion, the F-35 is the most expensive weapon development program in the history of the Pentagon.

Pentagon officials ordered the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps versions of the plane grounded last Friday, after the turbine cracks were uncovered aboard an Air Force version of the jet stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

The fighters' recent failures, combined with the program's massive price tag, have prompted some inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill to call for massive reductions or the outright cancellation of the next-generation jet.

Looming fiscal pressures tied to $500 billion in potential cuts to DOD coffers under sequestration have only contributed to that criticism. 


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