OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate panel advances Iran sanctions bill

THE TOPLINE: The Senate Banking Committee on Thursday approved a bill that would ratchet up sanctions on Iran if a comprehensive deal to roll back its nuclear program is not reached by June 30. 

The measure, co-authored by Sens. Mark KirkMark Steven Kirk The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Advocates push for EpiPens on flights after college student's mid-flight allergic reaction Funding the fight against polio MORE (R-Ill.) and Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezAs NFIP reauthorization deadline looms, Congress must end lethal subsidies Senate Democrats warn Trump: Don't invite Putin to G-7 Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid MORE (D-N.J.), passed in the committee by an 18-4 vote, with six Democrats joining all Republicans.

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Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSinema says she would back Kennedy in race against Markey Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall Pelosi: 'People are dying' because McConnell won't bring up gun legislation MORE (D-.N.Y) said the bill was "a good step forward."

"If they don't come to a tough strong agreement... there will be further sanctions and further actions," he said.

President Obama threatened during his State of the Union address to veto any legislation that would impose sanctions on Tehran.

The administration believes any sanctions legislation passed before June 30 would implode the diplomatic talks and create dissent among the U.S. and its allies.

Menendez, however led a coalition of 10 Democrats who back the bill, to promise the White House not to support a vote on the legislation before March 24. Negotiators have promised to reach a framework agreement by that date.

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Tenn.) said that promise would effectively delay a vote on the Senate floor of the bill until then.

"All of us understand it's not going to be voted on before March 24," he said.

 

MILITARY BENEFITS OVERHAUL? A military commission on Thursday recommended an overhaul of troop retirement pay and healthcare benefits that would save the Pentagon $20 billion over the next four years.

Lawmakers could adopt the changes as early as this year, but the proposals are likely to face scrutiny from military advocacy groups.

The most far-reaching of the 15 recommendations from the nine-member, congressionally-appointed panel was a change to retirement pay for troops serving 20 years.

Instead of receiving an annuity equal to 50 percent of their base pay after 20 years, retiring service members could opt for a lump-sum payment, while lower-ranking troops could receive a 401(k)-style plan they could invest in. 

Any retirement changes adopted into law by Congress would not apply to current troops or retirees unless they wanted to opt in, the commission members said at a press briefing Thursday. However, changes to healthcare benefits would affect current troops and retirees.

The recommendations would also reform the military healthcare system. Future retirees, dependents and reserve members could be moved to a plan provided to federal civilian workers.

Congress created the commission in 2013 to look into ways to cut personnel costs the Pentagon says eat up its budget.

"The report does contain recommendations to increase military retiree Tricare fees, as well as to alter the military retirement program for future enlistees, but the devil is always in the details," said John W. Stroud, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"[T]he VFW will now review the entire report in detail and address our concerns with the United States Congress."

 

MEMBER OF 'TALIBAN 5' RETURNS TO FIGHT? The government reportedly suspects that one of the five Taliban detainees released from Guantánamo Bay in return for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last May has attempted to return to the fight.

Several U.S. officials told CNN that an ongoing U.S. intelligence program to monitor the former detainees' communications in Qatar, where they were transferred for a year, showed that one of them "reached out" to encourage militant activity.

Congress has been notified of the information, but it has not been made public, CNN said.

The suspicions could reignite the debate over whether the exchange of five senior Taliban commanders for Bergdahl was worth it, as well as strengthen opposition to releasing more detainees from Guantánamo Bay.

Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteGOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs Trump makes rare trip to Clinton state, hoping to win back New Hampshire Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE (R-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she was "extremely disturbed" by the report. 

"This report highlights the danger of the administration’s irresponsible decision to transfer the Taliban 5, and underscores yet again the serious risks posed by the misguided effort to empty Guantanamo in order to close it," she said. 

"With nearly 30 percent of former Guantanamo detainees suspected or confirmed of reengaging in terrorism, the administration’s continued policy of releasing dangerous terrorists endangers Americans and our allies." 

 

DOD BUDGET LOOMS. President Obama will seek $561 billion in defense spending in fiscal 2016, roughly $38 billion more than is allowed under sequestration.

Obama said Thursday that he's asking Congress to reverse the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration in his annual budget proposal, which will be unveiled next week.

"If Congress rejects my plan and refuses to undo these arbitrary cuts, it will threaten our economy and our military," he said in a blog post. "Investments in key areas will fall to their lowest level in 10 years, adjusted for inflation, putting American research, education, infrastructure, and national security at risk."

The president proposed relieving sequestration for fiscal 2015 and 2016 in last year's budget. A budget deal passed by Congress in December 2013 eased the automatic spending cuts for last year and the rest of this year through September. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCain The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Biden's debate performance renews questions of health At debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR MORE (R-Ariz.) welcomed the president's push to end sequestration.

"I think it’s unanimous, the view that sequestration is a meat ax. It was never intended to be employed,” he told reporters after a panel hearing.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

-Senate bill would give VA chief more powers to punish officials
-Obama's budget $74B above caps
-McCain welcomes sequestration's end
-Benghazi panel chairman doubles down on Clinton testimony
-WATCH: McCain calls protesters 'low-life scum'

 

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