A delay in Defense Secretary nominee Ash Carter's Senate confirmation hearings could result in extra attention being focused on the future of military pay, benefits and retirement rules.

Senate Armed Services Committee officials had hoped to tackle Carter's nomination process as early as next week, in an effort to put the former Pentagon deputy secretary before the Senate for a full vote by the end of January.

But on Tuesday, the first day of the new congressional session, incoming committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters that Carter won't be ready for hearings until the first week in February, due to recent back surgery. The 60-year-old Carter is expected to spend the next few weeks recovering and meeting informally with lawmakers.

Carter is well known on Capitol Hill from his previous Pentagon work, and is not expected to face serious opposition from senators.

But he is expected to face a host of harsh questions about President Obama's policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and criticism that the White House hasn't done enough to properly fund the military against future threats.

Depending on the date, Carter's confirmation hearing could come at the same time as the hearing on the administration's fiscal 2016 budget request, which will come under extra scrutiny now that Republicans control both the House and the Senate.

In addition, the hearing is now expected to come after release of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission report on potential overhauls of Pentagon pay and benefits offerings. That report, originally due out last spring, is scheduled for release on Feb. 1.

Lawmakers, veterans advocates and Pentagon planners have been speculating about the commission recommendations for months, and already are preparing responses to changes they support or oppose.

Outside critics have called for changes in awarding of housing allowances, medical benefits and retirement payouts, arguing the military hasn't updated it's basic pay structures in decades. But veterans groups have warned that radical changes could break faith with the fighting force and hurt retention efforts.

The commission's recommendations are expected to include detailed legislation for lawmakers to immediately begin debating. Several could be worked into the fiscal 2016 budget request, which Carter will have to help shepherd through Congress and implement next year.

Defense Department leaders already have set up a team of high-level officials to review and respond to the report, with a formal Pentagon response to be sent to the White House within 60 days.

By then, Carter is expected to have taken over as defense secretary.

Service members saw only a 1 percent pay raise this year, below the expected growth in average private-sector wages last year.

Defense officials argued for most of last year that the smaller raise was needed to help rein in growing personnel costs, and to protect modernization and readiness accounts.

Staff writer Andrew Tilghman contributed to this story.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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