OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Both chambers work to repeal pension cuts

The Topline: Both the House and the Senate are trying to move legislation this week that would repeal the $6 billion military pension cut included in the December budget deal.

The measures being considered in both chambers still face significant hurdles, but they show the broad desire from lawmakers to reverse the pension cuts — as well as the political pitfalls surrounding the reductions.

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The Senate took the first move on the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) cuts Monday, voting unanimously 94-0 to proceed to debate on a measure from Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) that would repeal the pension reductions.

Both parties appear to back repealing the COLA cuts, but they disagree over how to pay for it — the sticking point among all of the bills introduced to reverse the pension cuts over the past two months.

Pryor’s measure does not have an offset, and Republicans said Monday they would not support passage of his bill without one.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told The Hill he “can’t imagine” Republicans backing the bill unless a pay-for is identified.

“The other side just doesn’t seem to care about making the debt worse, and I don’t really get that,” Cornyn said.

Now the two sides have to reach an agreement on amendments, which has frequently been the stumbling block for the Senate.

It doesn’t help that no offset introduced thus far has been able to attract bipartisan support.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said Monday that she would be introducing her proposal to prevent illegal immigrants from claiming the additional child tax credit as an amendment to Pryor’s bill. But that is a non-starter with Democrats.

Ayotte has tried to offer her proposal as a way to pay for a short-term extension of unemployment insurance, which was rejected by Democrats.

Democrats, meanwhile, have coalesced around a proposal from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to close offshore tax loopholes. But Republicans also consider that a non-starter.

The $6 billion pension cut included in the December 2013 budget deal reduced the COLAs for working-age military retirees by 1 percentage point below inflation.

House readies COLA fix in debt-limit bill: On the other side of the Capitol, House Republican leaders are pushing for a vote Wednesday on a measure to raise the debt limit as well as repeal the military pension cut.

The GOP conference met Monday evening to discuss about the legislation and the party’s strategy on the debt limit.

In order to pay for the $6 billion saved by the pension cut, House Republicans are considering another offset: extending the sequester for mandatory Medicare spending.

An extension of mandatory spending budget caps was already used in the December 2013 budget deal, saving $28 billion by extending the Medicare sequester caps for two years, until 2023.

Reversing the fix will also mean that defense appropriators will have $700 million less a year to spend under the discretionary budget caps starting in 2015.

That’s because the Pentagon makes annual payments to a trust find to pay for future benefits, and that falls under the appropriated budget. The amount is still very small compared to the $500 billion-plus Pentagon budget.

The GOP leaders’ proposal faces hurdles, as some conservative Republicans indicated Monday they would be unlikely to support the emerging proposal.

As for Democrats, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said that she wants the House to pass a clean debt-limit bill.

House lawmakers tell Obama to save A-10 fleet: A group of House lawmakers wrote to President Obama on Monday asking him to fully fund the Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt fleet, which is on the Pentagon’s chopping block.

The bipartisan letter from six lawmakers, obtained by The Hill, touts the A-10s and argues that cutting the “Warthog” fleet would create a critical capability gap “that cannot be bridged in the near future.”

Air Force officials have said they might cut the A-10 and other single-mission planes in order to deal with budget pressures.

Lawmakers who back the A-10 have argued that no other plane can step in to do the same job.

“We are cognizant of the significant budgetary pressures the Air Force faces; however our national security and the protection of our service members in combat areas must be paramount,” the lawmakers wrote.

The A-10 is one of several programs that lawmakers are trying to preemptively convince the Pentagon not to cut ahead of the 2015 budget release on March 5.

Rep. Ron Barber (R-Ariz.), who has A-10s at a base in his district, led Monday’s letter. It was signed by Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Carol Shea Porter (D-N.H.), Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Chris Stewart (R-Utah).

Syrian opposition opens DC office: The overarching Syrian Opposition Coalition plans to open an office in Washington in the coming weeks to better inform lawmakers of “realities on the ground in Syria.” 

“Our message to Washington is that there is real convergence between American national security interests and increasing support for the Syrian opposition at this critical juncture,” said a senior adviser. 

The civil war in Syria has dragged on for more than two years, and has led to the deaths of more than 100,000. Some lawmakers support providing increased arms to the rebels, but a strong al Qaeda presence among the opposition has significantly dampened support for the efforts. 

The coalition released a statement Monday that said there is growing evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad is actively supporting al Qaeda and terrorist groups in Syria against the rebel opposition in its civil war, now in its third year.

The coalition said Syria’s military intelligence service oversees the al Qaeda foreign fighter network in Iraq, and formed the foundation for al Qaeda’s Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. 

“The connection between the regime and Al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and Syria runs deep,” coalition President Ahmad Jarba said.

 

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