OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Hagel touts ‘progress’ in anti-ISIS fight

THE TOPLINE: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers on Thursday that the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is making progress.

“We are three months into a multi-year effort. ISIL’s advance in parts of Iraq has stalled, and in some cases been reversed, by Iraqi, Kurdish, and tribal forces supported by U.S. and coalition airstrikes,” Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee, using an alternate name for the terror group.

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“ISIL fighters have been forced to alter their tactics — maneuvering in smaller groups, hiding large equipment, and changing their communications methods,” he added.

The Obama administration last week announced plans to send 1,500 more troops to advise and train Iraqi forces, doubling the U.S. presence in the country to over 3,000. But the White House said the troops will not deploy until Congress approves $5.6 billion in funding.

The Pentagon chief painted a bleaker picture in Syria, where the U.S. and allies also oppose the regime of Bashar Assad.

“We are sober about the challenges we face as ISIL exploits the complicated, long-running Syrian conflict,” Hagel said.

 

LAWMAKERS WEIGH ISIS MEASURE: Any authorization of military force against ISIS that restricts the use of U.S. ground troops will be “dead on arrival,” according to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeonHoward (Buck) Philip McKeonTrump pick brings scrutiny to 'revolving door' between Pentagon, industry Bottom line Republican fighter pilot to challenge freshman Dem in key California race MORE (R-Calif.).

“I will not support sending our military into harm’s way with their arms tied behind their backs,” said McKeon at a committee hearing Thursday.

Lawmakers could take up an authorization against ISIS during the lame-duck session, but so far, there is broad disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on what it would say.

Some lawmakers have called for restrictions in the bill to bar U.S. troops from going into combat. But Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) say they will reject any measure that seeks to limit President Obama’s military options.

Congress is also divided on when to take up a vote on authorizing force. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has called for a quick vote, while Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) says lawmakers should vote after the new Congress is sworn in next year.

McKeon told The Hill that a vote should wait until next year.

"To just go through an election like we’ve had and all the people who were elected, they should be the ones that are going to have to live with the vote,” said McKeon, who retires in January.

But his likely successor as chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), said there are “pluses and minuses” to both arguments.

“It ought to happen — whether it's one month or another is not really a big issue,” he said.

 

WHITE HOUSE: NO SYRIA REVIEW: White House pushed back against reports that the president has asked his national security team to formally review the administration’s policy in Syria.

“There's no formal strategy review of our Syria policy,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president in Burma.

A senior administration official told CNN that “developments on the ground have caused the national security team to collectively conclude we may not have time for Iraq first.”

The U.S. initially targeted its fight against ISIS in Iraq, where the group was threatening the capital of Baghdad this summer. The U.S.-led coalition has gradually expanded airstrikes to Syria.

“In an ideal world, you would drive ISIL out of Iraq and pivot to Syria,” the official said. “But if by then the moderate opposition has been smacked, and ISIL is still there, that doesn't help.”

Rhodes acknowledged that senior advisers “certainly looked at what the relationship is between the actions we're taking against ISIL and the political transition.”

He said that there had been “regular meetings that the president has joined with his national security team on this issue.”

 

A-10 FIGHT RENEWED: Congressional supporters of the A-10 “Warthog” came together on Thursday to shoot down the Air Force’s latest proposal to retire some of the venerable planes.

“I tell you who would love to retire the A-10, the enemies of this nation,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said at a Capitol Hill press conference.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also opposed any effort to curb the A-10, and skewered the Air Force for “misguided priorities.”

Their comments come in response to reports that the Air Force wants a deal with congressional leaders that would retire 72 of the attack jets, or three active-duty squadrons, but keep the rest of the 283-plane fleet in the air.

Service leaders want to shift maintenance personnel from those squadrons to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

The Air Force spent much of the last year defending its proposal to eliminate the fleet, saying the move would save $3.5 billion over five years and that the aircraft’s close-air support mission could be carried out by other planes.

The proposed cut was perhaps the Pentagon’s most controversial request and was rejected by lawmakers in both chambers.

Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), whose district is home to about one-third of the Warthog fleet, said the Air Force’s proposal is a “nonstarter" and would set up a "false fight" between A-10 and F-35 supporters.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), whose husband is an A-10 pilot, called the idea “wrong.”

Retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said the service is “in a tough spot” due to budget cuts under sequestration but that the service “simply has not had a long-range plan for retiring the A-10 and bringing in the F-35.”

 

MCCAIN PROMISES PROBE INTO BERGDAHL SWAP: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said lawmakers would “absolutely” look into the president's decision to exchange Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's for five Taliban prisoners next year.

“Oh yeah, we’re going to find out about that,” McCain, who is poised to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee in the next Congress, told reporters.

“Absolutely. Absolutely. You can count on that one,” he added.

The release of Bergdahl, a prisoner of war, became a flash point earlier this year, after the White House circumvented Congress to secure his freedom by swapping five Taliban detainees from Guantánamo Bay.

The trade for Bergdahl angered lawmakers in both parties, as the administration kept the prisoner trade secret until after it was done, ignoring a law requiring 30 days advance notice to members of Congress before any detainee release from Guantánamo.

McCain has reportedly said he wants to create a new subcommittee with investigative responsibilities. That new subpanel could ultimately be tasked with such an inquiry.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

— Sen. Burr says he’ll seek Intelligence chairmanship

— Accord expected Thursday on defense policy bill

— Treasury urges patience in effort to dry up ISIS dollars

— Udall: 'All options' on table with CIA report

— Russian bombers to patrol Gulf of Mexico

 

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