Week ahead: Congress to tackle military pensions

The Senate Armed Services Committee will dive into the most controversial part of last month’s budget deal this week when it holds a hearing on the $6 billion cut to military pensions.

The panel is holding its first hearing Tuesday on the reduction in the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for working-age military retirees that was part of the budget deal that also gave the Pentagon $31 billion in sequester relief.

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The pension cuts have sparked a major backlash from lawmakers and service and veterans organizations, with more than a dozen bills introduced to repeal the cuts.

The flurry of bills has not led to any bipartisan agreement over how to make up the difference of the $6 billion in cuts, however.

The most likely vehicle for reversing them could be the annual Defense authorization bill put together by the Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman, has indicated support for reversing the cuts, saying it unfairly singles out one group.

Levin has said he wants his committee to hold hearings first before deciding the next steps forward on the issue.

He and other lawmakers have pointed to the congressionally mandated commission that’s studying all compensation-related issues, but the 2014 Defense authorization bill pushed back the commission’s deadline until February 2015.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is also holding a high-profile hearing on Wednesday, when top intelligence officials will testify on worldwide threats to the nation.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey are among those who will testify.

The hearing comes as Congress and the White House are weighing major changes to the National Security Agency surveillance programs following the leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The hearing will once again put NSA critic Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) face-to-face with Clapper. During last year’s threats hearing, Wyden pressed Clapper to admit that the government was collecting the phone records of millions of Americans.

The hearing will cover much more than the NSA, of course; the intelligence leaders could get questions on anything from al Qaeda’s resurgence and cybersecurity to the CIA’s drone program and security at the Olympics.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House Armed Services Committee is holding a hearing Tuesday on the implementation of the military’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, and Michael Lumpkin, acting undersecretary for policy, are scheduled to testify.

The Armed Services panel also has a hearing Tuesday afternoon on China’s counter-space program and its implications for U.S. national security.

The committee has a timely Wednesday hearing on religious accommodations in the military after the Pentagon tweaked its rules last week to loosen restrictions on clothing, piercings and facial hair worn for religious reasons.

The move was a step forward for Sikhs, who say the rules restrict their military service, but Sikh advocates argue it does not go far enough because Sikhs still must go through a waiver process to wear turbans and beards that are part of their faith.