OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senators push pension fix

The Topline: The voices coming out of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday were in unison: the $6 billion pension cuts should be repealed.

At the committee’s first hearing on the issue Tuesday, no senator spoke up to defend the pension reductions, which were included in the budget deal that easily passed both chambers last month.

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The Pentagon leaders testifying endorsed a go-slow approach to changing the compensation system, saying they wanted to wait for the congressionally mandated commission to report its findings, due February 2015.

Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox and Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, warned at the hearing that rising compensation costs must be curbed looking forward.

“However and whenever the specific provision is addressed should not permanently remove cost of living adjustments as a potential variable in a future grandfathered plan,” Winnefeld said. “In other words, we don't have to rush in to this. We just need to make sure we get it right.”

But the Pentagon leaders did say that the pension cuts should be changed so they don’t affect current service members and veterans, giving lawmakers some room to make changes.

The Senate Armed Services Committee members did not appear to be in a mood to wait until 2015 to repeal the reduction to the cost-of-living adjustment for working-age retirees.

“I believe we will have the ability to act promptly on a bill, and I hope that we will — and not wait for the commission — because there is a clear consensus we should clear the air on this issue,” panel Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said at the hearing.

The lawmakers still have issues to work out before they are able to pass a bill that would reverse the $6 billion cut, as no offset has yet been identified with significant bipartisan support.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H) sought to tweak her proposal for repealing the pension cuts on Tuesday to attract Democrats, but Democrats did not appear to be swayed by the change made.

Ayotte’s new proposal, which still targets illegal immigrants claiming the additional child tax credit, would allow the use of Social Security numbers for children who are citizens even if the parents are illegal immigrants.

“They said their big beef last time was what about the children who are American children, and you’re hurting them, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll listen to you,’ and I’ve revamped my proposal,” Ayotte said Tuesday.

Democrats, however, said they preferred different offsets.

“I think there are better pay-fors than that,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I don’t think you need to pay for this fix by harming programs that affect children.”

Levin, who was also skeptical of Ayotte’s plan, said he preferred the Senate bring a bill to the floor without an offset, letting senators offer pay-fors as amendments.

How much will speech mention Afghanistan, al Qaeda?: President Obama’s State of the Union address could be his last while the U.S. is officially at war in Afghanistan.

But that doesn’t mean the president will spend a significant chunk of time on the war, as he wants to focus on pushing his domestic agenda.

Tensions have been high between the Obama administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he has refused to sign a long-term security agreement.

Veterans groups also want Obama to touch on the importance of taking care of veterans after they come home from operations overseas.

Another question is how much Obama will discuss the fight against al Qaeda, particularly after affiliate groups have shown a resurgence in Iraq.

Lawmakers say forget Karzai: Top lawmakers now say to forget Afghan President Hamid Karzai after the Afghan president recently said he suspected the U.S. of launching insurgent-style attacks in Afghanistan to undermine him.

“Karzai’s comments are becoming more detached from reality, and it’s a deep concern because what he said is just plainly false,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said.

The U.S. is waiting for Karzai to sign a security agreement that would allow American troops to remain in Afghanistan after their combat mission ends in December, but lawmakers say it's now better to wait until after Afghan presidential elections in April.

“The best thing to do is to wait until after the elections with a new president,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had traveled to Afghanistan earlier this month to appeal directly to Karzai.

Karzai's latest allegations come after he issued release orders to 37 of 88 Afghan detainees U.S. officials believe are responsible for the wounding or killing of 42 coalition troops.

“He clearly is divorced from reality at this point,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told The Hill.

White House officials had expected the security agreement to be signed by now, and the president had planned to announce how many troops he would leave after 2014 during his State of the Union address.

However, with the agreement unsigned, he is expected to focus on the war's end.

Intel leaders to testify Wednesday: The Senate Intelligence Committee is holding its annual worldwide threats hearing on Wednesday, with top intelligence officials testifying in a rare public setting.

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

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 National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, something Obama could dive into during his speech Tuesday night.

The hearing will also 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.

In addition to the NSA, senators are likely to ask about anything from al Qaeda’s resurgence and cybersecurity to the CIA’s drone program and security at the Olympics. 

 

In Case You Missed It:

— Lawmakers: Don’t cut carriers

— Petraeus: Snowden did most damage of any ‘turncoat’

— Defense bill OKs arms to Syria

— Vets to Obama: Address pension cuts in speech

— An aggressive voice for the newest vets

 

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