OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: White House says Syria used chemical weapons

The announcement from the White House that it now has “high confidence” Assad’s regime used chemical weapons will put new pressure on the administration to take further action.

Rhodes said that Obama would be moving forward “on our own timeline.” He said that he couldn’t yet “lay out an inventory” of the types of assistance that the U.S. might provide.

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Republicans critical of Obama’s Syria policy responded by saying Obama needed to do more than just supply rebels weapons in Syria.

“Every bone in my body knows that simply supplying weapons will not change the equation,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on the Senate floor. “The president better understand that just supplying weapons will not change the balance.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), one of the first Democrats to call for arming the rebels, said the administration should act immediately.

"In using chemical weapons, Assad has committed a war crime against his own people," said Engel, who introduced legislation authorizing weapons to be sent back in March.

Senate panel clears defense authorization bill: The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a $625 billion spending package for the Department of Defense on Thursday, clearing the way for a vote by the full Senate on the budget bill for fiscal 2014.

Committee members passed their version of the Defense budget blueprint, which finances the department's annual operations and the war in Afghanistan, by a vote of 23 to 3, according to panel Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

The panel also trimmed $1.8 billion from the department and service accounts to finance training and readiness shortfalls in the military, Levin told reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

The bill included provisions designed to tackle sexual assault, but not a proposal offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would have taken the decision to prosecute cases outside the chain of command.

Instead, the committee adopted a replacement from Levin that established a review process for sexual assault cases that are not prosecuted.

The panel also opted not to include funds for a third East Coast missile defense site that were included in the House’s version of the bill.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Republicans would take up the East Coast site on the Senate floor.

Senators planning to limit contractor NSA access: Lawmakers plan to draft legislation that would limit the access that federal contractors have to highly classified information, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence panel said Thursday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Congress is considering changes to the rules for contractors in the wake of illegally leaked details about domestic intelligence programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA).

"We will consider changes," Feinstein told reporters after a classified briefing with administration officials on the NSA leaks. “We will certainly have legislation which will limit [or] prevent contractors from handling highly classified data.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the ranking member on the Senate intel committee, said after the briefing that it’s clear the U.S. needs to "do a better job of making sure that our top secret clearances go to only those individuals that deserve it."

"I think there are some changes that we’re going to look at, but I don’t know that it needs to be done legislatively," Chambliss said. "We just have to wait and see."

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said there were still serious questions on how Snowden "ended up with access to some of the most sensitive data in American security."

House moves through Defense bill: The House began consideration of 172 amendments to the defense authorization bill on Thursday afternoon, a process that was expected to last well into the evening Thursday.

In the first chunk of amendments taken up, the House adopted a two-year minimum sentence for sexual assault crimes, and passed a measure re-affirming Obama’s plan to remove all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The House voted narrowly to put some limits on the president’s power to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens accused who are terrorism suspects, but rejected an attempt to eliminate the authority altogether.

In a close 214-211 vote, members approved an amendment, from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that says nothing in U.S. law can deny citizens the right to a habeas review. They voted down an amendment from Armed Services ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) that would require terrorism suspects captured on U.S. soil to be moved into the federal court system.

Lawmakers submitted were 299 amendments that were submitted for the bill, and the Rules Committee ruled 172 were in order.

Democrats objected to the committee blocking two amendments dealing with sexual assault that would have taken the decision to prosecute cases outside the chain of command. One of the amendments was the same as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) proposal, and the other was from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.).

The House is expected to finish work on the Defense bill on Friday.


In Case You Missed It:

— House votes for free military Internet

— House limits detention authority for citizens

— GAO denies Beechcraft protest

— White House questions on Gillibrand bill

— NSA conducting ‘damage assessment’ of leak


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