OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Congress heads home

That’s not to say there hasn’t been some movement: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is openly talking about revenues, and there has been lots of talk about informal meetings with bipartisan groups of senators. But thus far there’s nothing to suggest that Congress will be in a different place when it recesses once again in October for the election.

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The events of this week certainly didn’t help.

The Labor Department’s memo on Monday telling defense contractors it was “inappropriate” to issue layoff notices sparked a Republican firestorm, and accusations that the Obama administration was trying to hide defense job losses until after the election.

On Wednesday, Obama’s budget chief Jeffrey Zients went at it repeatedly with Republicans in the House Armed Services Committee over who was to blame for sequestration, prompting Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) to say at the end of the hearing he was “uncomfortable” with the direction it took.

Both McKeon and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have said Congress should do something about sequestration before the election and the lame-duck session, but they are quickly running out of legislative days to do so, as McKeon noted Wednesday.

Graham makes his push: The Senate did pass the Defense appropriations bill through committee on Thursday, where Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) attempted to keep sequestration at the forefront of lawmakers' minds on the last day before summer vacation.

During the committee's markup of the Pentagon's defense spending bill, Graham made a inherently political but still impassioned plea to fellow Democrats to find a way around the roughly $500 billion in cuts to defense coffers. "If we can pull this off ... there is a glimmer of hope that Congress is not the broken institution that many Americans have come to view it as,” Graham said.

In making his case, Graham reiterated that it was time for Republicans to back off their opposition to tax increases to resolve sequestration, while Democrats needed to compromise on their resistance to cuts in social welfare programs. "The discomfort ... is real," he said. "[But] when you are in this much debt ... you do what you can."

Graham made his plea while pushing for an amendment to DOD's spending bill that would require defense firms to issue layoff notices due to sequestration. While the proposal — defeated by the committee on a straight party-line vote — was a direct shot at the Obama administration, Graham's plea did not fall on deaf ears. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said that a compromise will "hurt on either side" but will hurt less compared to if sequester becomes reality.

Defense authorization in the Senate queue: The other big defense priority when Congress returns in September will be the Defense authorization bill, which has been in a holding pattern to get on the Senate floor, despite optimistic assurances at the time by committee leaders that it would be taken up in June or July.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has said that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) knows how much he wants to get the bill on the floor and passed in September, but he’s been given no guarantees by Reid it will happen, and time will be short.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) is waiting in the wings with the House-passed bill to go to conference committee, which would likely happen before the election if the Senate does pass its bill. Both committee leaders want that to occur, because the lame-duck session is already jam-packed with sequestration and the tax fight.

Don’t forget: the authorization bill has a 50-year streak of passage that McKeon and Levin do not want to break.

Air Force briefs on Lackland: Air Force Secretary Michael Donley briefed House Armed Services Committee members on the growing Lackland Air Force Base sexual assault scandal. McKeon had been criticized by advocates for not properly addressing the scandal and for holding a briefing that was closed to the public. McKeon and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a statement that it was closed because “open hearings can jeopardize ongoing prosecutions and investigations.”

The Lackland scandal had also led Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to block the nomination of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. Cornyn met with Welsh on Thursday and lifted the hold, after saying he was satisfied that the Air Force would properly address the issue.

But Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) told The Associated Press that she was unsatisfied with the answers she heard in the committee briefing.

“They didn’t have answers as to whether they (the women at the base) are being surveyed or interviewed,” she told the AP. They didn’t have answers as to how many investigators were handling these cases. They didn’t have an answer on what the training was for these investigators.”

US escalates role in Syria: Aside from sequestration, another simmering crisis is threatening to boil over while Congress is on vacation. On Thursday, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan formally stepped down as the official U.S.-Arab League envoy and public face of the international peace process in Syria. Annan spearheaded a peace plan in March designed to transition Syrian President Bashar Assad out of power and end his brutal crackdown on rebel forces in the country. While Assad formally agreed to the plan, his forces continued to hammer away at rebel strongholds in Syria.

In the end, U.N. observers tasked with monitoring the peace plan had to be pulled out of the country after they were attacked by Assad's troops. Annan's resignation formally puts an end to the last legitimate effort to end the Syrian crisis. Also on Wednesday, news broke that President Obama approved plans to allow the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies to begin providing support to the Syrian rebels.

That said, the White House and the Pentagon remain opposed to directly arming anti-government forces in Syria and is continuing to push for a diplomatic end to the violence. However, the classified presidential finding does open a new chapter in America's involvement in the country. It remains to be seen how that scenario plays out by the time Congress comes back to Washington in September.


IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

— Pentagon considers bulking up Pacific

— Air Force general to head F-35 program

— Panel kills GOP layoff notice plan

— Annan quits in Syria


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