OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Syrian chemical attack stokes concerns in Congress

White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to confirm reports on Tuesday that a chemical weapon had been used, saying only that the White House is "looking carefully at the information as it comes in."

But Carney did say there was "no evidence" to substantiate allegations from the Assad regime the chemical weapon attack came from rebel forces.

ADVERTISEMENT
In Congress, the attack prompted new calls for U.S. action.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that if the claims of chemical weapons are substantiated, the administration should arm vetted rebel groups, use airstrikes against Syria’s missile batteries and establish a safe zone.

“I’ve never been more worried about weapons of mass destruction falling into terrorists’ hands than I am right now,” Graham told The Hill.

On the Democratic side, more lawmakers are also calling for additional actions. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has endorsed creating a safe zone in Syria, and House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill this week to arm rebel groups and create a plan for disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons.

North Korea sparks missile shield debate: Congressional Republicans have seized upon North Korea's bellicose antics in recent weeks as proof the United States needs to build a new missile defense shield on the Eastern Seaboard.

The recent round of North Korean nuclear weapons tests, coupled with the aggressive rhetoric coming from Pyongyang, amounted to "a wake up call" on the need for a new missile system in the east, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last Friday announced plans to deploy an additional 14 ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska, in response to the threats made by North Korea to attack the United States with a nuclear weapon.

Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday pressed top Pentagon brass on the need for an East Coast shield. 

During Tuesday's hearing, ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) forced Northern Command chief Gen. Charles Jacoby to admit that U.S. missile defense systems were not in an "optimum position" to defend against potential ballistic missile strikes, even with the new Alaska site. 

Senate Armed Services chief Carl Levin (D-Mich.) attempted to quash the notion that North Korea's actions demand the creation of a East Coast shield. 

"People who have [already] reached their conclusions" on a East Coast shield "need to step back a little" and see what steps DOD has already taken to mitigate the threat, Levin said. 

Virginia Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine said the debate over a new East Coast shield "has gotten a bit sharper" since Pyongyang's recent ramp-up of its nuclear weapons program. "It is a [continuing] concern," he added. 

MEADS fight spills into Senate: The fight in Congress over the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) isn’t over yet.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) blocked movement on the Senate’s continuing resolution Monday night after her amendment to kill funding for the program was not given a vote.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) took to the floor to defend the money in the bill Tuesday, saying that it is responsible to have it to either fund the last year of development on the program or cover termination costs.

The Pentagon says that it would have to pay steep costs to Italy and Germany, the partners on the project, if it terminates the contract before development is finished.

“The cost to finish the development of this program is almost exactly the same as the cost to unilaterally terminate it, a point not made by the senator from New Hampshire,” Durbin said.

But House appropriators say that even if the money stays in, it will only cover termination costs because the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prohibited funding the program.

A government watchdog group added a twist to the debate Tuesday afternoon by claiming that the Defense Department would not face termination fees.

“A confidential DOD report to Congress obtained by [the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste] concluded that the U.S. can withdraw from the contract without committing additional money or paying termination fees,” the group said in a statement.

The group did not respond to a request to provide a copy of the report, which would run counter to public statements of Pentagon officials.

Marines bans mortars after deadly accident: Marine Corps leaders have banned the use of the service's 60mm mortar, pending an investigation into Monday's training accident involving the weapon, which killed seven Marines.

The Marines were killed Monday when a mortar round exploded inside the launch tube during a nighttime training operation at Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada. 

Seven other Marines who were injured in the accident were airlifted to Renown Regional Medical Center in nearby Reno, according to reports. 

DOD has yet to release the names of the Marines killed, but all seven were part of 2nd Marine Division, according to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Lejune, N.C.

The mortar ban would remain in place until Marine Corps leaders can determine the accident was a single incident, and the rest of the mortar systems being used by other Marine Corps infantry units were safe, a service spokesman told USA Today

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged the Marines killed on the Senate floor Tuesday.

“My thoughts are with those who were injured. My heart goes out to the families of those who lost their lives. And my sympathies are with their fellow Marines, who are also grieving this loss," Reid said.


In Case You Missed It: 

— East Coast missile shield debate reignited

— Rumsfeld Iraq tweet triggers backlash  

— Seven Marines killed in training accident

— MEADS seeks Senate reprieve


Please send tips and comments to Jeremy Herb,  jherb@thehill.com, and Carlo Muñoz, cmunoz@thehill.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @DEFCONHill, @JHerbTheHill, @CMunozTheHill

You can sign up to receive this overnight update via email on The Hill’s homepage.