OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate tees up pension cuts bill

The Topline: The Senate could soon bring the first piece of legislation to the Senate floor that would repeal the $6 billion cut to military pensions included in the December 2013 budget deal.

The bill comes from Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and would reverse the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) cuts as one part of a larger omnibus veterans package.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is likely to file cloture on the bill Thursday, which would set up a procedural vote to proceed to the bill next Monday.

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While the Senate is still the Senate — and the timing could always change — should things hold firm it would mark the first time that Reid has brought one of the plethora of bills to repeal the military pension cuts to the floor.

Of course, Sanders’s measure could run into the same fate as the others: disagreement over how to pay for it.

Sanders is preparing to pay for his estimated $30 billion veterans bill — which also expands veterans healthcare, gives in-state tuition across the country and provides additional care for sexual assault victims — through Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).

While many Republicans back the repeal of the pension cuts and a majority of the other provisions in the bill, they have raised skepticism about paying for it with OCO funds, which are essentially “off budget” and not subject to the budget deal’s spending caps.

The other bills that solely repeal the $6 billion retirement benefits cut have also been unable to identify an offset that attracts significant bipartisan support.

That still appears to be the sticking point that has kept Congress from acting to repeal the 1 percentage-point reduction to COLAs for retirees under the age of 62.

Sanders has argued that using OCO funds is legitimate for a bill that takes care of troops as they return home, and he has said that he thinks his comprehensive approach of packaging the pension cuts repeal with other measures can attract bipartisan support.

But at least two conservative-leaning veterans groups say they are opposed, and are holding a press call Tuesday ahead of Sanders’s press conference with veterans groups that have endorsed the veterans package.

Sanders is planning to file a new bill with a score from the Congressional Budget Office and the offset included. A Senate aide said that his measure is expected to be “significantly less” than the $30 billion Sanders had initially estimated.

VA backlog needs more work: Although the Department of Veterans Affairs has decreased a backlog of veterans’ disability claims by 35.5 percent, there are still 400,000 left to go, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. 

This represents more than half of all 680,000 claims currently in the system, said the group, which released a new report on Monday that highlighted actions the VA could take to reduce the backlog. There are expected to be more claims, as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans age. 

IAVA policy chief Tom Tarantino said he was concerned that the processing rate had slowed between last quarter and into January. 

“We not only need to pull the car out of the ditch, but we need to get it back on the road,” he said at a roundtable on Monday. 

The report’s recommendations included standardizing claims forms, creating an interoperable medical records-sharing system between the Defense Department and the VA, and incentivizing VA workers to focus on quality as well as quantity to reduce the number of appeals. 

Al Qaeda cuts ties with Syrian branch ISIL: Al Qaeda’s central leaders have had it with the group’s Syrian branch, and the group said Monday it was cutting ties with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The ISIL “is not a branch of the al Qaeda organization,” al Qaeda said in a statement Monday, saying it had “no connection” with the Islamic group that operates out of Syria and Iraq.

“We distance ourselves from the sedition taking place among the mujahedeen factions [in Syria] and of the forbidden blood shed by any faction," read the statement, which appeared on websites frequently used by al Qaeda.

The dispute stems back to last year, when al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said he was forming the ISIL to operate out of Syria.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri tried to stop the merger, but he was rebuffed by his lieutenant as the ISIL clashed in Syria with both Islamic and secular rebel groups.

Pentagon civilians wait as Assad delays: Delays by Syrian President Bashar Assad to deliver chemical weapons could extend the deployment of the Cape Ray, the U.S. ship slated to destroy the materials at sea. 

The Cape Ray is scheduled to arrive at Rota, Spain, within several days, where it will likely wait until all the materials arrive at the Italian port of Gioia Tauro. Assad has only delivered 5 percent of hundreds of tons of material, missing his first deadline of Dec. 31 by a month. 

Meanwhile, most of the Pentagon civilians actually slated to destroy the weapons are back in the U.S., and will fly to Europe, where they will board the Cape Ray when all the materials are onboard. 

It will take about two days to load the materials onto the Cape Ray, and 45 to 90 days to destroy the weapons at sea. The ship will likely head to another location, where it will dispose of leftover waste. The entire mission is scheduled to take no longer than nine months, but with the delay, the Cape Ray could stay out longer. 

Defense officials say the Cape Ray can be sustained and resupplied in Rota or at a number of ports in the Mediterranean Sea, and that there is no shortage of civilians who could be sent out for the mission in case some need to be replaced. 

 

In Case You Missed It:

— Senators: Kerry admits policy failing in Syria 

— Sen. Shaheen calls for oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction efforts

— Inhofe rips 'outrageous lie' on Benghazi 

— Dempsey: Military ethical lapses have ‘my full attention’  

— Week ahead: Congress to examine al Qaeda threat

 

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