OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Pentagon pick grilled on ISIS, Afghan drawdown

THE TOPLINE: Ashton Carter, President Obama's nominee for Defense secretary, smoothly navigated his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. 

He faced a number of tough questions at the hearing on the administration's policy toward the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and vowed tackling the group would be his "first priority."

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His hearing came just a day after ISIS released a video showing militants burning alive a captured Jordanian pilot.

"I believe I understand our strategy at this time... I also have the intention, again if confirmed, to make it my first priority to go there, to talk to our leaders, our military leaders there," he said under questioning from Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainFighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate The Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? Trump makes rare trip to Clinton state, hoping to win back New Hampshire MORE (R-Ariz.).

Carter added that any strategy should be focused on the group's "lasting defeat."

"I say lasting because it's important that when they get defeated, they stay defeated," he said.

During the hearing, Carter even stepped in front of the White House on two areas -- Ukraine and Afghanistan. 

The Pentagon pick told lawmakers he was "inclined" to back increased military assistance to Ukraine – in contrast to the White House which is reluctant to provide lethal weapons. 

On Afghanistan, Carter said he would consider recommending that the president rethink the troop drawdown in Afghanistan if conditions on the ground worsen. 

The White House has insisted it will pursue the current timeline, which would leave just 1,000 troops in the country by the end of 2016, despite worries about the deteriorating security situation.

Carter also vowed not to bow to pressure from the White House to speed up any transfers from Guantanamo Bay, another concern of Republican lawmakers. 

He encouraged Congress to reverse defense budget caps known as sequestration, but also said he would look to trim waste from the Pentagon's budget. 

"The taxpayer cannot comprehend, let alone support, the defense budget when they read of cost overruns, lack of accounting and accountability, needless overhead and the like," Carter said.

Carter is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate before it recesses on Feb. 16. 

 

DEMS DUBIOUS ABOUT DROPPING TRICARE. Democrats on the House Armed Services asked pointed questions about a military commission's suggestion to eliminate the healthcare system for troops.

The recommendation was one of 15 unveiled last week by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) asked how abolishing Tricare and replacing it with an array of private provider options would be an improvement.

Tricare has "diminished in its value" because it has such a limited provider network, said commissioner Stephen Buyer.

Rep. Mark Takai (D-Hawaii), an Iraq War veteran who was enrolled in Tricare, said replacing it "sounds like it's going to cost a lot more money."

Other Democrats indicated they were open to the idea.

Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardNative American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment The US can't seem to live without Afghanistan 2020 Democrats release joint statement ahead of Trump's New Hampshire rally MORE (D-Hawaii) said a change might be "necessary" to increase access to healthcare, which has been an issue in her home state.

Panel Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said healthcare is "one of the most complex areas we deal with, so taking some time to study the effects of a change in healthcare is, to me, the biggest challenge ahead of us as we look at these recommendations."

 

BRAND TALIBAN A TERROR GROUP.  Rep. David McKinleyDavid Bennett McKinleyBipartisan former EPA chiefs say Trump administration has abandoned agency's mission Thirty-four GOP members buck Trump on disaster bill Divisions emerge over House drug price bills MORE (R-W.Va.) introduced a resolution to brand the Taliban in Afghanistan a "foreign terrorist organization."

The measure comes in response to comments White House press secretary Josh Earnest made last week, when he described the Taliban as an "armed insurgency."

"If we cannot call our enemy what they are, then how can we fight them?" McKinley asked in a statement. "It is nonsensical for the President to insist the Taliban is not a terrorist group when they safeguard terrorists, target civilians, and murder Americans."

The West Virginia lawmaker said the Treasury Department and the National Counterterrorism Center have designated the Taliban a terrorist organization.

"Americans deserve leaders who tell them the truth, not equivocation and misleading wordplay," McKinley said.

 

HILLVETS' TOP 100: Congressmen, writers and entrepreneurs are among the HillVets' Top 100 Veterans of 2014 list highlighting influential veterans, service members and supporters. 
 
The exhaustive list includes influential veterans of all eras, from the Vietnam War to the more recent Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. And the people on the list run the gamut from film directors to business executives. 
 
The list includes outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces Five takeaways from Pentagon chief's first major trip Esper given horse in Mongolia as US looks for new inroads against China MORE, a Vietnam veteran and two-time Purple Heart recipient. Talk show host Montel Williams also makes the list, as does first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama to present Lin-Manuel Miranda with the Portrait of a Nation Prize Michelle Obama thanks her high school for naming new athletic complex after her US ambassador to Germany calls out journalists who blocked him on Twitter MORE
 
The list also includes a bevy of top military officials from the Army and the Marine Corps, and Chris Kyle -- the subject of the hit film "American Sniper."
 
A handful of lawmakers are on the list: Reps. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), Mike Thompson (R-Calif.), Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungHouse passes bill requiring CBP to enact safety, hygiene standards GOP scores procedural win by securing more funding to enforce Iran sanctions Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz MORE (R-Alaska), Dina Titus (R-Nev.), and former Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.); and Sens. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonCongress must address gender gap in nominations to military service academies GOP senators press Google on reports it developed a smart speaker with Huawei Sunday shows - Mass shootings grab the spotlight MORE (R-Ark.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden faces an uncertain path Bernie Sanders vows to go to 'war with white nationalism and racism' as president Biden: 'There's an awful lot of really good Republicans out there' MORE (I-Vt.), Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrHoekstra emerges as favorite for top intelligence post Trump casts uncertainty over top intelligence role Trump withdraws Ratcliffe as Intelligence pick MORE (R-N.C.), and retired Sen. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinListen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home House Democrats poised to set a dangerous precedent with president’s tax returns The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — White House to 'temporarily reinstate' Acosta's press pass after judge issues order | Graham to take over Judiciary panel | Hand recount for Florida Senate race MORE (D-Mich.).
 
For the full list click here.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: 

-- NBC's Brian Williams admits his repeated Iraq story was not true

-- WH won't criticize Jordan over executions

-- Senators move to demand DOD audit penalties

-- OMB chief to Congress: Keep link between DOD, domestic spending

-- GOP lawmaker: Execution of Jordanian pilot a 'game-changer'

 

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