OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Budget would cut military benefits

THE TOPLINE: Troops will be paying more for prescription medication bought off base, and receive smaller housing subsidies and pay raises under an agreement unveiled Tuesday by House and Senate negotiators.  

Negotiators unveiled the proposed cuts as part of a 2015 defense authorization bill lawmakers hope to pass before Congress recesses next week. 

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The cuts do not go as far as Senate negotiators and the Pentagon had demanded, however. 

House negotiators agreed to an increase in pharmaceutical co-pays for Tricare, the military's health insurance system, of $3 in 2015, instead of a $30 increase over 10 years.

They also agreed to a 1 percent reduction in basic housing allowances, versus a 5 percent reduction over three years. Troops would also receive a 1 percent pay raise, versus a 1.8 percent pay raise. 

Groups representing military families had lobbied furiously against the cuts, which the Pentagon says are needed to bring its long-term finances under control. 

Those groups accused the Pentagon of balancing its budget on the backs of those who have been fighting the country’s wars over the last decade. Their reactions ranged from muted criticism to anger. 

Military advocates had flooded Congress with messages to stave off the cuts. 

"This is the second Christmas in a row that national leaders have tried to cut military pay benefits," said Lori Falkner Volkman, a former prosecutor and spokesperson for the Keep Your Promise Alliance, an online coalition of military families and organizations.

"Earned benefits shouldn't even be on the table while entitlement budgets soar and appropriation budgets are billions over budget."

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), praised House negotiators and said they "helped blunt the blow to military families and retired beneficiaries." 

Senior aides said the cuts proposed cuts will only apply for a year, and that lawmakers did not want to get ahead of recommendations due in February from a commission reviewing military benefits and compensation. 

"This will take us into next year when we get the commission on compensation and benefits to inform us on how to take the longer view on how to [get the necessary reforms]," a senior House aide said.

But, he added, "We had to do something now, so that was the compromise."

The bill's text is expected to be released Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning. 

The bill would allocate $521 billion for 2015. $17.9 billion of that will go to defense programs at the Department of Energy, and $63.7 billion for overseas contingency operations funds.

If passed, it would provide two years of authority for the Pentagon's program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, and for sending 1,500 U.S. troops to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces.

The bill also rejects a Pentagon proposal to retire the A-10 fighter jets in order to save $4 billion over the next five years. Lawmakers, however, included some reductions in flight hours and maintenance for the aircraft next year.

Lawmakers also blocked plans to retire Army National Guard Apache helicopters.

Senators agreed to drop a provision that would have allowed the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees to the U.S. if Congress approved a comprehensive plan to shut down the facility.

Lawmakers also included protections for military sexual assault victims, but there are no plans to prevent military commanders from handling the cases.

The budget will be introduced in the House this week and sent over to the Senate if approved. There will not be a chance for amendments to the bill, said a senior Senate staffer.

"I would imagine it would be more like next week," said the staffer. "We will be asking people to pass the bill without amendments.

"We think we have enough votes to pass it, but life in the Senate is always difficult," the staffer said.

 

OBAMA POISED TO PICK CARTER: President Obama has likely settled on former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to run the Pentagon.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest confirmed Carter is "on the short list" to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelThe Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's 12:30 Report Billionaires stopping climate change action have a hold on Trump, GOP MORE, but declined to name any other candidate under consideration on Tuesday.

Earnest said Carter had served "ably" in his previous position at the Defense Department.

"He’s somebody that certainly deserves and has demonstrated strong bipartisan support for his previous service in government," Earnest told reporters. "He is somebody that does have a detailed understanding of the way that the Department of Defense works."

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) were also seen as top candidates for the post, but all removed their names from consideration.

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill welcomed the news that the administration would likely select Carter.

“It’d be good,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “He’s always performed well; he’s not going to be as much of a political person as somebody might be.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he’d “heard no criticism so far” of Carter and that he believed he was “a really solid and sound choice for that role.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said unlike Hagel, Carter was qualified for the job because he “served in the Defense Department in several other positions and has established a record of service there.”

 

WH WON'T VETO DEFENSE BILL: The White House hinted Tuesday that President Obama won’t veto a defense authorization bill even if it includes language prohibiting the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, despite threatening to do so. 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration anticipated the final bill would include a number of "disappointing" provisions, including limits on the president's ability to close Guantanamo Bay.

"That's something that we have been, frankly, pretty critical of in the past," he said. "If it's included in there, again, it's something we'll be critical of again."

However, he added, "The nature of these kinds of bipartisan efforts, however, though, is that the legislation is essentially a compromise, which means that neither side gets everything that they want." 

Earnest, though, would not commit to the president signing the bill.

"Well, we're going to evaluate the whole package," he said, acknowledging that "in the past, we have gone ahead and signed legislation that included this language."

Earnest also jabbed at reports that the White House is micromanaging the Pentagon in the wake of Hagel's resignation. He accused Congress of ignoring the Pentagon’s wishes.

"I don't know if you could do more to micromanage the Pentagon than to refuse to include the budgetary reforms that our civilian and military leadership believe are critically important to the military being able to do their job," Earnest said.

 

GOP WANTS MORE IRAN SANCTIONS: Senate Republicans are raising pressure on President Obama to impose more sanctions on Iran.

Obama should request new sanctions from Congress before the end of the year, the Senate Republican Policy Committee said in a statement Tuesday.

If he doesn’t, they should become “an early order of business for the next Congress in January,” when Republicans take over.

Negotiators in Geneva last month failed to strike a deal over Tehran’s nuclear program, extending their talks.

The policy committee, chaired by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), said that the president “has taken enough time trying to talk Iran out of its illicit nuclear program.”

After six years, “it is clear that Iran has no interest in seizing the opportunity given to it,” the committee stated, noting Obama has “extended his hand many times to Iran, including writing to the country’s Supreme Leader privately no less than four times.”

“Instead of breaking yet another promise to the American people, President Obama should respond appropriately to Iran’s clenched fist and work with Congress to increase sanctions,” it said.

National security adviser Susan Rice, though, pushed back, saying that placing additional sanctions on Iran would “blow up” negotiations.

“The P5+1 would fracture, the international community would blame the United States rather than Iran for the collapse of the negotiations, and the Iranians would conclude that there’s little point in pursuing this process at the negotiating table,” Rice said at a conference hosted by The Wall Street Journal.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

— McCain urges FBI to end Petraeus probe

— Lawmakers question Turkey’s efforts to stop foreign ISIS fighters

— House passes bill to end benefits for Nazis

— Iranian hackers expose worldwide networks

— FBI warns of first US destructive cyberattacks

 

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