OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Defense bill markup hearings begin

The Topline: The remaining House Armed Services subcommittees on Wednesday unveiled their draft versions of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.

The Readiness and the Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittees released the text of their markups in advance of Thursday hearings.

The language sets important benchmarks before the full committee takes up the legislation on March 7.

-The Tactical Air and Land subcommittee did not make a single reference to the fate of the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. The Pentagon wants to retire the close air support platform, known throughout the armed services as the “Warthog,” in order to save around $3.5 billion. The move has come under criticism from lawmakers, including subcommittee chairman Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio).

-The Readiness panel outright rejected the Defense Department’s request for another round of base closures in 2017. The Pentagon has asked Congress several times in recent years to empower a Base Realignment and Closure Commission that would determine what military installations could be shuttered in order to save money.

 

Other panels convene: A day after releasing the text of their proposed defense authorization legislation, four of the House Armed Services subcommittees came together to report the measures to the full panel.

The hearings continued the recent trend of adopting the text in a matter of minutes, a tradition that bothered two Democrats on the Strategic Forces subcommittee, including ranking member Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.).

“We kick all of our problems upstairs to the full committee,” Cooper said. He predicted that the full panel markup on May 7 would be an “amendment fest.”

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) joined in the criticism, saying that he did not offer any amendments because “there is such a thing as wasting time.” Many details on legislation are often hammered out in private conversations between lawmakers.

Meanwhile, Military Personnel subcommittee Chairman Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) told reporters that his panel brushed off Pentagon requests to reform TRICARE, housing allowances and commissary subsidies for military families due to the growing number of threats the United States faces around the globe.

Defense Department officials have repeatedly warned Congress that cost-of-living benefits continue to grow with each passing year and that those costs threaten to choke off key modernization and equipment efforts. 

But Wilson cited a litany of hot spots around the globe and said that “the funding of national defense should be the priority.”

“It shouldn’t be a trade of whether you have a commissary or whether you have readiness or even equipment. That shouldn’t be the case at all,” he added.

Ranking member Susan Davis (D-Calif.) warned her colleagues that “we must begin to have a conversation” to address ballooning troop benefits “otherwise, it will only lead to more end-strength reductions and readiness challenges” for the armed services.

 

GOP lawmakers offer Russia sanctions bill: Calling the president's proposal for new sanctions this week "tepid" and "cautious," Republican senators are proposing measures of their own.

Their proposal would provide $100 million in military aid to Ukrainian forces, and impose harsh new sanctions on individuals, banks, and a Russian arms dealer. If Moscow continues its aggressive behavior, sectoral sanctions on key areas of the Russian economy would be imposed. 

"We’ve been disappointed in the rather tepid response," Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said during a press conference announcing the bill on Wednesday. "We hope we can push the administration in a different direction."

Although the bill was drafted by Republicans, co-sponsor Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he hoped it would gain support and lead to tougher measures. Earlier this week, he called the president's latest round of sanctions a "slap on the wrist." 

"This is not a messaging bill … it’s a bill to create an outcome," said Corker, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The bill also calls for accelerating missile defense plans for Europe, ramping up U.S. natural gas exports to European countries that rely on Russian energy exports.

The sanctions bill announced Wednesday has 19 Republican co-sponsors. Corker said he was confident it would gain bipartisan support. 

Other co-sponsors of the bill include Sens. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and John Hoeven (R-N.D.).

 

Army could lose almost half of its combat brigades: Army leaders told a Senate panel Wednesday that they may need to cut the number of combat brigades by nearly half because of sequestration cuts.

“We will have no choice but to slash end-strength levels if sequestration continues in order to obtain the proper balance between end-strength, readiness and modernization,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee on Wednesday.

Odierno said 22 percent of the National Guard's brigade combat teams would be cut as well. 

Under sequestration, the Army would have to lose a total of about 150,000 active-duty troops, 43,000 National Guard troops and 23,000 Reserve troops, he said. 

“This will cause us to reduce up to 46 percent of the brigade combat teams in the active-duty Army,” Odierno added.

"At these in-strength funding levels, we will not be able to execute the current defense strategy. In my opinion, this will call into question our ability to execute even one prolonged multi-phase major contingency operation," he warned.

 

In Case You Missed It:

-Report: Pentagon intel chief to step down

-Carney: Email was not about Benghazi

-Senators strike deal on cybersecurity

-House adopts proposals to fix VA claims backlog

-Spy court hears first anti-NSA argument

 

Please send tips and comments to Kristina Wong, kwong@thehill.com and Martin Matishak, mmatishak@thehill.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @thehill @kristina_wong @martinmatishak

More in Overnight Defense

OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: House passes $585B defense bill

Read more »