OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: GOP, Dems at odds over veterans bills

The Topline: The effort to repeal the $6 billion cut to military pensions advanced on numerous fronts on Tuesday, although the central problem in Congress with passing one of the measures — how to pay for it — has yet to be resolved.

Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a press conference backed by leading veterans groups on Tuesday morning, urging the Senate to quickly pass his omnibus veterans bill next week that repeals the pension cuts.

Sanders’s 367-page bill would repeal the reductions to the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for working-age military retirees amid a larger bill on VA healthcare, tuition assistance and other programs.

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But $20 billion of the $24 billion bill is paid for using Overseas Contingency Operations, an off-budget mechanism not subject to discretionary spending caps that Republicans have objected to.

Instead, Republicans are planning an alternative measure from Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), which is also expected to repeal the military pension cuts but would offset the funding in a different way.

Burr told reporters Tuesday he hadn’t determined how the funds would be offset, but that he was considering a measure from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) that would offset $20 billion by preventing illegal immigrants from claiming the additional child tax credit.

Her measure, however, has not attracted any Democratic backers.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), meanwhile, thinks the fight over an offset should be saved for the floor.

Levin’s committee announced that next Monday it would mark up a bill from Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) — both vulnerable Democrats up for reelection — to repeal the pension cuts.

The bill from Pryor and Hagan does not provide an offset for the $6 billion pension cuts, instead simply repealing the provision that was passed in the December 2013 budget deal.

Levin has suggested bringing the repeal bill to the floor without an offset and then trying to pass pay-fors as amendments.

While the offset remains a significant hurdle, all of the legislative action in the Senate to repeal the military pension cuts suggest the Senate could vote soon on a measure to do so.

In the House, things could be more complicated, as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has defended the pension cuts as a small change that will help get military personnel costs under control.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) — who was previously Veterans' Affairs chairwoman — has said she’s fine removing the military pension cuts so long as an offset is identified.

Work to be nominated as deputy Defense undersecretary: Former Navy undersecretary Bob Work, 61, is close to being nominated for the No. 2 position at the Pentagon. 

Work will take over for former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who stepped down in December. The position had been currently filled by Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox.

The nomination, which was first reported by RealClearDefense, is expected later this week.  

During his confirmation hearing, Work will surely face questions by lawmakers on his future shipbuilding plans, his views on an Office of the Secretary of Defense plan to cut the number of littoral combat ships planned, and on an ongoing Navy scandal involving bribery. 

Another cheating investigation: The Navy announced Tuesday it has decertified a fifth of its nuclear reactor operating force at a Charleston, S.C., training command over allegations of cheating on qualification tests. 

About 30 of approximately 150 staff members at the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program in Charleston have been decertified, pending a Navy investigation. The number could expand as the investigation continues, officials say. 

The allegations involve senior enlisted staff members who may have had access to and shared a written exam used to qualify staff members who train students on nuclear reactors. 

The nuclear reactors provide aircraft carriers and submarines with propulsion, and have nothing to do with nuclear missiles, as in a similar Air Force cheating investigation that has seen more than 92 of its missileers suspended or restricted from their jobs. 

Qualified staff members return to a fleet after their tour at the training command, where they undergo the same qualification testing. There are about 16,000 nuclear reactor operators in the Navy, officials said. 

After learning of the incident, officials said they shut down all training reactors for routine maintenance, and are retesting all other reactor operators in the program at Charleston, said its director, Adm. John Richardson. 

Extra supervision has been assigned to the training teams and there could be a possible operational impact with other operators having to fill in for those decertified, he added.

Officials vowed to hold those found cheating accountable. 

“If these allegations are substantiated we will hold the appropriate sailors [accountable],” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, at a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday. 

McCaskill grills Army Guard over recruiting fraud: Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) slammed the Army at a Senate hearing Tuesday over a massive case of recruiting fraud that led to at least $29 million in fraudulent payments.

The Army said that it's investigating a National Guard recruiting program that provided bonuses of thousands of dollars for signing up new recruits.

Lt. Gen. William Grisoli, director of the Army staff, said that $29 million in fraudulent bonuses had been identified and as much as $66 million more still had to be investigated, which will continue until 2016.

There have been more than 1,200 individuals investigated by the Army’s Criminal Investigative Command tied to the fraud, which dates back to 2007.

The Army stopped the recruiting program in 2012 as it learned of the widespread fraud.

“This criminal fraud investigation is one the largest that the Army has ever conducted, both in terms of sheer volume of fraud and the number of participants,” McCaskill said at Tuesday’s hearing.

 

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— Intel officials: Snowden may be under Russian influence

— China boosts military spending

 

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