OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: NDAA stalls in Senate

The Topline: The Senate on Wednesday failed to move forward with votes on sexual assault amendments as the Defense authorization bill is stalled amid a fight over amendments.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) objected to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) request to proceed to a vote on two sexual assault amendments Wednesday evening.

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Coburn said he was objecting because Reid was not allowing for an open amendment process on the Defense bill, which authorizes Pentagon policy and spending.

“There is not a unanimous consent I will agree with until the Senate process is opened up,” Coburn said.

Reid said he had offered Republicans a deal to hold 13 amendment votes, but that it did not spark an agreement between the two sides. He said he would not open the amendment process fully.

Republicans did allow for votes on two Guantánamo amendments on Tuesday, which were both defeated.

The dispute means that a vote on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) proposal to take sexual assault cases out of the military’s chain of command is on hold. Senators spent hours debating it on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Gillibrand, who has 53 senators now supporting her, told reporters as she left the chamber she was still hopeful a vote could happen later on Wednesday evening, though prospects looked unlikely. Reid is set to address the floor again at 7:30 p.m.

She continues to gain supporters, as Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Wednesday night that he backed her proposal.

If an agreement can’t be reached on the sexual assault votes and other amendments, it threatens the Senate’s ability to finish the Defense bill this week. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) warned the bill could not get done this year if the Senate didn’t pass it this week.

That’s because the two chambers are only in session together one more week after Thanksgiving. The Senate is planning a two-week recess for Thanksgiving, and does not return until Dec. 9. The House plans to adjourn for the year on Dec. 13.

A House Committee aide also said that the prospects for completing the bill in normal fashion were slim if the Senate didn’t pass it this week.

“If the Senate goes on recess before they finish the bill, regular order becomes exceedingly difficult, if not impossible,” the aide said.

US, Afghanistan reach postwar deal: Washington and Kabul have come to terms on the baseline agreement that will govern U.S. military forces remaining in Afghanistan after the Obama administration's 2014 withdrawal deadline.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced the agreement Wednesday, after a last-minute breakthrough in talks between U.S. and Afghan negotiators.

Known inside the Pentagon as the bilateral security agreement (BSA), the plan will now go before the Loya Jirga, an assembly of the Afghanistan's most powerful tribal leaders, on Thursday.

If approved by the assembly and Afghanistan's parliament, the agreement would go into effect January 2015 and last roughly a decade, according to the deal.

The agreement does not set a troop number for the postwar U.S. force.

The United States is considering a postwar force of 9,000 to 10,000 for Afghanistan to lock in security gains by American and NATO forces in the country after the 2014 drawdown.

The American units will primarily used to train Afghan forces and execute targeted counterterrorism operations against Taliban, al Qaeda and other militant extremist groups operating in the country.

DHS nomination clears committee: The Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday quickly cleared Jeh Johnson’s nomination to be the next Homeland Security secretary.

Johnson’s nomination now heads to the floor, where things will get a little bit trickier for the former Pentagon general counsel.

Both Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have indicated they plan to block Johnson’s confirmation on the floor. McCain wants a commitment from Johnson to provide metrics for how to assess border security, while Graham is looking to interview U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya, the night of last year’s terrorist attack.
Both Republicans have indicated they personally support Johnson’s nomination, however, which means he is still likely to be confirmed.

McCain and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voted against Johnson’s nomination in committee.

DOD gambles on benefit cuts: Pentagon leaders are drafting a plan to cut education, healthcare and housing benefits in an effort to get Congress to end the sequester. 

By proposing cuts to the sensitive benefits programs, the Pentagon is gambling it can convince lawmakers to change the sequester.

The strategy under review by the Pentagon offers a multi-year plan to ramp down benefit levels, rather than single-year fixes to military compensation programs, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said during a national security symposium in California.

"We have a body of knowledge that has convinced us doing it once is the right answer," Dempsey said.

Hagel set the stage for the Pentagon's gambit earlier this month, saying Congress must partner with the department to cope with sequestration.

"We [need] Congress as a willing partner in making tough choices ... while meeting our responsibilities to our people," Hagel said during a keynote speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But lawmakers are already pushing back against the benefits cuts, which have traditionally been a hot-button issue on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) characterized the Pentagon plan as another Obama administration scare tactic, similar to White House warnings over national park and monument closures in the run-up to the government shutdown earlier this year.

That said, the Iowa Republican indicated congressional lawmakers were ready to call the Pentagon's bluff on benefit cuts, once the final plan hits Capitol Hill.

"It's always hard to go after benefits," Senate Armed Services Committee chief Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Wednesday.

"I happen to think sequestration is a terrible mistake and we ought to replace it. That is my focus," he added.

The Wall Street Journal first reported details of the plan on Monday.

 

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