OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: GOP senators return from Afghanistan on good note

GOP defense hawks like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have not specified the troop levels they believe are necessary there, but both are expected to want a robust U.S. presence to help keep the Taliban at bay when NATO hands over security control to the Afghans in 2014.

That could put them at odds with the White House, which is accelerating the hand-off of combat lead operations to the Afghans to spring 2013, Obama announced Friday.

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The administration hasn’t said how many troops it will keep in Afghanistan post-2014 — or how quickly it will draw down the 66,000 currently stationed there — but those decisions should be near as U.S. Afghan commander Gen. John Allen has submitted his recommendations.

McCain and his allies were angry with Obama over pulling out all U.S. troops from Iraq, which occurred after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai hinted that problem would not stop a U.S.-Afghan security agreement. But White House officials last week said that a “zero option,” where all U.S. forces do leave Afghanistan, is still on the table.

Schumer quiet on Hagel meeting: Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) isn’t known for staying quiet, but he wasn’t saying anything about his meeting Monday with former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Obama’s pick for Defense secretary.

Sources close to the nomination told The Hill the meeting was on Monday, but Schumer issued no statements from his office about it, and was coy when asked at an inauguration press conference Monday.

"I'm going to meet with him in the near future at some location in the United States," Schumer said Monday morning.

Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, is seen as a key vote on the Hagel nomination, which has drawn opposition from pro-Israel groups and neoconservatives, as well as some gay-rights advocates. He is one of the Senate’s biggest pro-Israel Democrats, and would likely provide cover for other Democrats if he came out in opposition.

But Hagel backers predict that in the end, Schumer is not going to vote against a president from his own party picking a Defense secretary in wartime and at the start of his second term.

Either way, Monday’s meeting is likely to play a big role in the process.

Huntsman for Hagel: Hagel has been in the hot seat since President Obama named him as his pick for Pentagon chief.

Criticisms from the left and the right over Hagel's nomination on everything from his stance on Iran and Israel to gay rights have been fast and furious. The attacks have led some on Capitol Hill to doubt whether the former lawmaker would be able to survive Senate confirmation. But in recent weeks, a number of high-profile endorsements have also come Hagel's way.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker have all come to Hagel's defense. Top Democrats Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have also sung Hagel's praises to head up the Defense Department.

Now former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman has added his name to the list of Hagel fans, arguing the Vietnam veteran would be an ideal choice to join Obama's national security staff.

The Pentagon is going to need "somebody who goes against the grain of conventional wisdom" in order to get the department though what promises to be a very fiscally difficult period in DOD, according to Huntsman.

"I don't know him well, I've met him a couple times, but my sense is he's his own person, that he's willing to go against conventional wisdom," Huntsman said. "Israel aside, Iran aside, the stuff that secretary is going to have to do is real nuts and bolts reform."

Confirmation day for Brennan: While the battle over the Hagel nomination is reaching a fever pitch, the White House's other high-profile national security nomination will officially have his day before Congress.

White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, President Obama's pick for CIA director, will go before the Senate intelligence committee on Feb. 7, the committee announced in a statement.

While Hagel has generated much of the pre-confirmation headlines, the White House could be facing a tougher fight getting Brennan confirmed.

As one of the architects of the United States's aggressive counterterrorism strategy, Brennan has overseen the controversial rise in drone strikes against suspected terrorists and played a key policy role in the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" of terror suspects that some have equated to torture.

Brennan's role in these efforts was so large that he initially declined Obama's offer to become the nation's top spy in 2008, over concerns his activities in those areas would scuttle his confirmation chances.

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), McCain and Feinstein herself have all expressed concerns over Brennan and what direction he plans to take the agency.

House Armed Services holds first meeting: The House Armed Services Committee is holding its first committee meeting on Tuesday, but don’t feel too bad if you miss it. A committee aide says the hearing is largely a procedural affair; the panel’s rules will be set for the 113th Congress.

The real stuff will get under way next week, when the Armed Services panel is expected to hold a hearing on the sex scandal at Lackland Air Force Base.


IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

— US has ‘responsibility’ to support French in Mail

— Military suicides hit record high         

— McKeon questions sequester delaying DOD budget

— Panetta: I lived ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

— Afghans to decide US troop immunity by end of year

— Rothman to run defense lobbying for law firm


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