By Jeremy Herb - 03/31/14 09:19 AM EDT
The top U.S. commander in Europe was set to testify in Congress this week as lawmakers and the Obama administration await Russia’s next move in Ukraine, but instead he will be back in Europe.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this weekend cut short the visit to Washington of Gen. Philip Breedlove, chief of U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
Pentagon press secretary Read Adm. John Kirby said that Hagel “considered Breedlove's early return the prudent thing to do, given the lack of transparency and intent from Russian leadership about their military movements across the border.”
The hearings, which are part of the annual budgeting process, would have given lawmakers a prime opportunity to press Breedlove on whether the U.S. and NATO have a strong enough posture in Europe.
Republican lawmakers have called on the Obama administration to ramp up its military presence in Eastern Europe in order to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from pushing further into Eastern or Southern Ukraine.
While he won’t be testifying this week, Breedlove nevertheless created a stir on Capitol Hill over the past week.
Republicans on the House Armed Services panel wrote a letter to President Obama last week saying they were alarmed at the information they received from Breedlove in a classified setting on Russia’s movements.
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), a senior member of the panel, wrote a separate letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accusing the administration of withholding intelligence from Ukraine.
Breedlove’s appearance also sparked a partisan quarrel in the House panel, as Armed Services ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) criticized Republicans for excluding Democrats from their meeting with the commander.
“The briefing from the commander is entirely appropriate and necessary. But it is deeply troubling that this historically bipartisan committee excluded its counterparts,” Smith said.
Republicans said Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) had arranged the meeting as a follow-up to a bipartisan meeting with Breedlove the day prior.
The defense committees will still continue digging into the 2015 budget, with a slew of hearings this week.
The House Armed Services panel is holding hearings on Air Force aviation programs and ground force modernization on Wednesday, and will be examining the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review and strategic forces on Thursday.
Gen. Keith Alexander, the outgoing head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, is testifying before the committee Friday on intelligence activities.
On the Senate side, the Armed Services panel will dive into Marine modernization, military construction and base closures, as well as missile defense and tactical air programs — including the F-35 — on Wednesday.
Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno will appear before the Senate committee on Thursday.
The appropriations committees also have a busy week, with the House side holding hearings on defense health programs Wednesday and the National Guard and Army Reserves on Thursday. The Senate Defense Appropriations subpanel will have Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh testifying on Wednesday.
The House Intelligence Committee is holding a rare open hearing on Wednesday, where it will examine “The Benghazi talking points and [former CIA Deputy Director] Michael Morell’s role in shaping the administration’s narrative.”
In the upper chamber, the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to vote on de-classifying its controversial report critical of the CIA’s interrogation programs during the George W. Bush administration.