OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: DHS nominee to face Senate

The Topline: The Pentagon’s former general counsel will head to Capitol Hill on Wednesday as he gears up for what’s likely to be his most grueling Senate confirmation to get approved as the Homeland Security secretary.

Jeh Johnson will testify before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday to lead the Department of Homeland Security, after President Obama picked him to succeed Janet Napolitano last month.

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Democrats say Johnson is not facing any significant hurdles in the confirmation process, but Republicans are expected to press him on a number of issues on which they have clashed with the Obama administration and Napolitano, including immigration, border security and the Transportation Security Administration.

Many of the policy fights are over issues on which Johnson does not have a lengthy record, prompting GOP concerns that he will merely rubber-stamp the White House’s policies.

“If Mr. Johnson is going to double down on those policies, and on the belief that DHS can bypass Congress, that’s obviously going to be a big problem,” a Senate GOP aide said Tuesday.

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) have previously raised concerns about Johnson’s selection, and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) on Tuesday called him a “political hack.”

I don’t want a political hack in that position. I want someone to lead on national security issues,” McCaul said on “Fox and Friends.”

Democrats have brushed aside the criticism, and say that Johnson is extremely qualified for the job.

Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, the White House released a letter endorsing Johnson signed by the three former Homeland Security secretaries: Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff and Napolitano.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) will also tout the letters of support from former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

“I support Mr. Johnson’s nomination and urge my colleagues to confirm him as soon as possible,” Carper will say, according to his prepared remarks.

Johnson’s confirmation faces one additional roadblock from a senator who personally supports him: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Graham has threatened to block Johnson and all other nominees over the Obama administration’s unwillingness to make survivors of last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, available to Congress.

Obama, Hagel talk budget, sequestration: President Obama met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey on Tuesday at the White House to discuss the Pentagon's budget plans under sequestration. 

The fiscal 2015 plan will be the department's first spending roadmap with sequestration cuts factored in. 

Under sequestration, the Pentagon is staring down $500 billion in mandatory spending cuts over the next decade. The cuts began in March and would reduce the Pentagon’s proposed 2014 budget by $52 billion next year.

Hagel and Dempsey met with top service leaders for several hours inside the Pentagon on Tuesday in preparation for the meeting with Obama, according to Pentagon press secretary George Little. 

Little declined to comment on what specific budget issues Obama, Hagel and Dempsey were planning to tee up during the White House powwow. 

But specifics on how the Defense Department will build its future budget blueprints, beginning with the fiscal 2015 plan, will be "one of the top issues they will deal with today," Little told reporters at the Pentagon. 

Hagel said in a recent speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the Pentagon needed “Congress as a willing partner in making tough choices ... while meeting our responsibilities to our people."

DOD did the 'right thing' in sequester fight: The Defense Department did "the right thing" in taking the fight to Congress over sequestration, despite the Pentagon's failure to prevent the massive, across-the-board budget cuts from going into place.

In his last briefing as the Pentagon's top spokesman, George Little was adamant the game of chicken the department and Obama administration played with Capitol Hill in the run-up to sequestration was the right call.  

Since then, the Pentagon and the Obama administration have been hammered by congressional Republicans over their refusal to account for sequestration in the Pentagon's fiscal 2014 budget. The decision was seen by many on Capitol Hill as a pressure tactic by the White House, designed to force lawmakers to come up with a sequestration alternative. 

The Pentagon’s strategy has ultimately failed to persuade Congress to fix the sequester, which eventually went into effect in March. The cuts would reduce the Pentagon’s proposed 2014 budget by $52 billion next year.

As a result, the department's fiscal 2015 budget plan being drafted inside the Pentagon is the first spending blueprint that takes sequestration cuts into account. 

That said, Little pushed back against the notion that the Pentagon's strategy to intentionally turn a blind eye toward sequestration as a way to force lawmakers' hand was a failure. 

"We've been clear and straightforward with you and with the American people, with Congress, and we are still where we are," Little added. "But I think we've done it the right way."  

White House warns against ‘march to war’: The White House on Tuesday ratcheted up its push against lawmakers seeking new sanctions on Iran ahead of Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with the Senate Banking Committee.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said that seeking to block a diplomatic deal with Iran over its nuclear program would be a “march to war” that the public does not want.

“The American people do not want a march to war,” Carney said at Tuesday’s White House press briefing.

“And it is important to understand that if pursuing a resolution diplomatically is disallowed or ruled out, what options, then, do we and our allies have to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?” he said.

The Senate is considering whether to pursue a new sanctions measure against Iran after the nuclear talks failed last week.

Republican senators who have expressed opposition to the proposed deal say that new sanctions are the best course of action to drive Iran to make concessions.

The six world powers and Iran plan to meet again next week.

There has been a public dispute over why the talks failed, and the State Department on Tuesday sought to clarify Kerry’s comments that appeared to blame Iran.

“It's not about blame — this is a difficult, complicated issue,” said State spokeswoman Jen Psaki. 

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

— Pentagon wary of Syrian disarmament

— DOD stonewalls Afghan torture inquiry

— Paul: Clinton wants Benghazi blame elsewhere

— Iran says nuclear site can be inspected

— GOP says Iran plea not credible

 

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