OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate CR hits a snag

The House passed its bill last week, which includes an appropriations bill for Defense.

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Pentagon officials say that the appropriations bill is essential so they can have flexibility to move funds into operations and maintenance accounts that are creating significant shortfalls ahead of the cuts under sequestration.

The delay on the Senate bill could be short, however, as McCain told Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) on the floor that he would finish reviewing the bill “in a very short time.”

Once the Senate has passed its measure, which also includes a Defense appropriations bill, it will still need to be reconciled with the House version.

GOP battles over Benghazi: It’s been six months since September's deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that ended with the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. 

In that time, the White House lost one CIA director, when David Petraeus stepped down, and gained another when the Senate confirmed John Brennan to succeed Petraeus as the nation's new top spy. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta retired from the Pentagon and new DOD chief Chuck Hagel took his place. 

Despite all that change, House and Senate Republicans still claim the White House has yet to answer all the questions surrounding the Benghazi attack and its immediate fallout. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) is planning to draft a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, demanding access to the survivors of the Benghazi strike. 

He is also requesting the FBI files of their accounts of last September's attack, "to see what they said" and how it was possibly used to draft up administration's now infamous initial talking points on the terrorist strike. Brennan was previously the White House counterterror chief.

Graham and McCain had planned to block Brennan's nomination to lead CIA, over the administration's refusal to disclose how it initially deduced the attack was the result of a anti-American protest gone wrong. 

Only weeks later did the Obama administration acknowledge the strike was a planned, coordinated attack by Islamic extremist groups in the country.

"How could this narrative [of] there is no evidence of a terrorist attack, how did it ever get started? What [exactly] did the survivors tell us?" Graham said Tuesday.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the No. 2 Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Hill Tuesday the fight over Benghazi was over and congressional Republicans were simply milking the issue for political gain. 

"Benghazi is over and done with," the West Virginia Democrat said. Rockefeller roundly dismissed GOP claims that there are still a number of outstanding questions over the Benghazi attack, saying "as far as they are concerned ... this has always been for [Republicans] a political issue and that is the way they will continue to [pursue] it." 

For his part, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper took a swipe at congressional Republicans on Tuesday, when Senate Intelligence panel members asked what lessons had the White House learned from Benghazi. 

Clapper responded coyly: "Don't do talking points on classified talking points."

Defense reviews drone medal: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has launched a 30-day review to reassess the Pentagon's new combat medal for drone pilots and cyber warriors and its placement in the hierarchy of DOD's battlefield commendations. 

As part of the review, Hagel directed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey to examine the Distinguished Warfare Medal (DWM) among other commendations, such as the Silver Star or Purple Heart, and whether that position is warranted. 

The new award for unmanned or cyber operations falls between the Silver Star and Bronze Star, the third- and fourth-highest U.S. military honor available to American service personnel, and above the Purple Heart. 

While those members of the military usually serve far from harm's way, their impact on the battlefield is a harbinger of the new age in modern warfare, the DOD has argued.  

But that rationale dismisses the sacrifices made by those front-line troops, according to opponents of the medal on Capitol Hill. 

"We are very concerned about the message that this decision sends to those brave veterans of our Nation’s wars since 1941 whose heroism and meritorious service has been recognized by the Bronze Star Medal,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.). 

“Secretary Hagel has long had a history with the veterans service organizations. ... He's heard their concerns. He's heard the concerns of others," DOD press secretary George Little said. "He believes that it's prudent to take into account those concerns and conduct this review."

In the House, more than four dozen lawmakers wrote to Hagel last week expressing the same issues with the ranking of the DWM. 

Lawmakers angry over end of tuition assistance: Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) slammed the military’s decision to cut tuition assistance for service members, saying better cuts could be made.

“I believe that this administration can and should find smarter spending cuts instead of taking away tuition assistance from those who protect our country,” Toomey said in a statement Tuesday.

The Army, Marines and Air Force have suspended tuition assistance through the end of the fiscal year, and the Navy is reviewing its program.

Department of Defnese press secretary George Little told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday that the cuts were being made due to sequestration.

“Let me be clear: We are here because of sequestration on tuition assistance,” Little said. “These are the unfortunate outcomes. These are the tough choices that are being made.”

Little would not speculate whether the tuition assistance would also be cut off in the 2014 budget.


In Case You Missed It:

— GOP continues Benghazi fight

— Lawmakers lash out against Karzai

— Levin endorses Reed as SASC successor

— Pentagon in survival mode amid uncertainty

— Intel chief: Sequester makes terror fight tougher


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