OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate tackles pension cuts

The Topline: The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold the first high-profile hearing Tuesday on the controversial $6 billion military pension cuts included in last month’s budget deal.

Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. James Winnefeld will testify on the retirement changes, which were quickly passed in both chambers last month as part of the budget deal giving the Pentagon $31 billion in sequester relief over the next two years.

More than a dozen bills have been introduced to reverse the cuts to the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for working-age retirees, but so far none of the bills have attracted significant bipartisan support.

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As a result, there is growing frustration among veterans groups that Congress isn’t making any headway to actually reverse the cuts, despite the support from more than a third of members in both chambers.

Veterans groups who spoke with The Hill ahead of Tuesday’s hearing said they remained cautiously optimistic that the hearing would be a step forward in getting Congress to reverse the cuts.

While the COLA changes don’t take effect until December 2015, the groups warned that the cuts needed to be dealt with now.

"We need to get it done now, in this Congress, because very soon, the majority of Congress's attention is going to focus on reelection," said Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  

"The discussion is going to get tabled until 2015, and once 2015 happens and the COLA penalties have already started, it will be difficult to change," Davis said.

In addition to the Pentagon officials, representatives from the Military Offices Association of America, Association of the U.S. Army, the Retired Enlisted Association and the Institute for Defense Analyses will be testifying on a second panel. 

Groups to lobby ahead of hearing: Veterans groups and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) will hold the latest Capitol Hill presser before Tuesday’s hearing calling for Congress to reverse the pension cuts.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America (IAVA) and the American Legion will join Begich to call for action on the military retirement cuts.

Veterans groups have launched a full-court press on Capitol Hill since the budget deal took them by surprise last month, with frequent pressers at which they’ve been flanked by lawmakers also pushing for a repeal.

Begich, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections, has pushed for several bills that would undo the COLA cuts.

Afghanistan in the SOTU: Meanwhile, as Congress tackles troop sacrifice and COLA cuts, President Obama is readying his State of the Union speech that is expected to address the War in Afghanistan. 

Military watchers aren't expecting the president to spend much time talking about the war, COLA cuts or other military issues, as he is focused on his domestic agenda.  

Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee are preemptively criticizing Obama for his lack of attention to the war in Afghanistan, sending out a blast email Monday with the headline "President Refuses to Make the Case on Afghanistan."

However, the president is expected to focus on the war's end this December, when the U.S. and NATO combat mission ends. 

The U.S. and Afghanistan are in the midst of getting a security agreement signed that would allow for U.S. troops to stay beyond 2014, but the fate of the agreement is unknown. 

'Dangerous' Afghan detainees released: Meanwhile, an Afghan Review Board delivered release orders to 37 of 88 Afghan detainees over U.S. objections. Four of the detainees have either been involved in or had direct knowledge of attacks that led to the deaths or injury of 42 U.S. or coalition forces members. 

"These are bad guys. These are individuals with blood on their hands — the U.S., coalition and Afghan blood on their hands," said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren. 

The U.S. has appealed the decision, which is further straining relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan as the 2014 deadline nears. 

Senate approves Apache sale for Iraq: Late Monday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the lease and sale of Apache attack helicopters for the Iraq government as it battles an al Qaeda reemergence in parts of the country. 

The sale was held up by Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and other members who were concerned the helicopters would be used against the country's Sunni minority. 

"The Chairman is satisfied with the end use monitoring measures that the State Department will exercise to ensure that the Apaches are used in a responsible manner," an aide told the Hill. 

The helicopters are not expected to arrive in Iraq for three years, due to manufacturing and training, but in the meantime, the U.S. will lease 10 helicopters that will arrive in Iraq this summer. 

 

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