OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Veterans bill stalls in Senate

The Topline: Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a veterans bill from moving forward as the two sides clashed once again over amendments.

In a near party-line 56-41 vote, the Senate fell short of the 60 votes needed to end debate on the legislation from Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

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Two Republicans, Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.) and Jerry Moran (Kan.), voted with the Democrats.

The veterans bill was a large package that would have expanded education and healthcare programs for veterans and reversed pension cuts for future veterans.

Republicans blocked the bill because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) prevented votes on an alternative GOP package that also included new Iran sanctions.

Reid said that the two were unrelated issues.

“I hope all the veterans groups have witnessed all the contortions the Republicans have done to defeat this bill,” Reid said Thursday. “Shame on Republicans for bringing base politics into a bill to help veterans.”

Republicans, however, blamed Reid for not working with them to strike a compromise on the veterans measure.

“Majority Leader Reid has again failed to work with Republican senators on a critical bill, this time one that would address several of the problems currently plaguing our veteran community,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement.

Sanders vowed to keep working on getting his bill passed, noting that only three more Republicans needed to come on board.

But even if the Iran issue is cast aside, the way the bill is paid for — through Overseas Contingency Operations — will make it difficult to attract much GOP support.

Republicans objected to that because funding for overseas wars is essentially “off budget” and is not subject to annual discretionary spending caps.

“We’re not going to use some bogus gimmick to justify busting the budget,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said.

Veterans groups were unhappy with the gridlock, slamming the “Senate shenanigans” for getting in the way of advancing a key veterans measure. 

Gillibrand, McCaskill to get votes on sex assault bills: Sanders’s veterans bill may be stalled, but Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) are likely to get votes on their military sexual assault measures in the next two weeks.

The Senate is expected to vote on both measures after an agreement was reached between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Gillibrand’s controversial measure would take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other criminal cases outside the military’s chain of command.

The bill does not fall along partisan lines, as it has the support of Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Ky.).

But it still will likely need 60 votes to advance; the Pentagon is vehemently opposed, as are Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and McCaskill.

Gillibrand’s office says she has 55 senators who back her measure, short of the 60 she will likely need.

McCaskill’s bill, which would build on the reforms passed in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, is not controversial and should pass easily.

Hagel urges Russia to be ‘cool’: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday urged Russia to show restraint and caution toward the Ukraine so it doesn’t escalate tensions there.

As Russia conducted large military exercises near its border with Ukraine, armed men seized control of government buildings in the Ukrainian region of Crimea on Thursday and raised Russia’s flag.

"These are times for cool, wise leadership on Russia's side and everyone's side," Hagel told reporters in Brussels after a NATO defense ministers meeting, according to The Associated Press.

"Until we know more details, what really happened, who's in charge, the focus should be on let's keep the tensions down, let's see no provocative actions by anyone, any military," Hagel said.

The United States warned on Wednesday any “outside actors” should “respect” Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Top Republican lawmakers used the incident to illustrate why the U.S. needed to maintain a strong military.

“Look what’s happening in the Ukraine. Russia is now putting a 150,000 troop exercise on the border with the Ukraine. Russia is a problem,” said Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. James Inhofe said during a trip to Georgia last month that Russia was planning aggressive troop deployments in Georgia’s occupied territories after the Olympics.

“This is the most dangerous I’ve ever seen it. ... We’ve got a real serious problem,” said the Oklahoma Republican.

Speaking of Putin ...: President Obama’s smaller defense budget is emboldening U.S. adversaries such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, McKeon said on Thursday during a breakfast briefing with defense reporters.

"Putin's not a dummy. He looks at it and says, 'Hey, America's cutting back their defense, I can push here,' " the Armed Services chairman said.

"It's a dangerous world, and we're making it more so by cutting defense," McKeon said. "We weaken ourselves, and that is how you get into wars. You don't get into wars if you're strong."

Under the Pentagon's 2015 budget request, the active-duty Army would shrink from about 520,000 troops to between 440,000 and 450,000; the Marine Corps would go from 190,000 to 182,000. Those numbers could be reduced further after 2015.

McKeon said under the cuts, the Marines would not be able to defend ally South Korea if it were attacked by North Korea and handle another battle at the same time.

"The Marines are planning on going down to 21 infantry battalions. Twenty are called for in the plan to defend Korea,” McKeon said. “That leaves one battalion to handle Russia, Iran, Syria, Egypt," McKeon said. 

McKeon said the belief that the U.S. should not be going around the world interfering in other countries' affairs "works pretty good, until you get a Hitler or until you get a Putin."

 

In Case You Missed It: 

— McKeon sees little hope of overturning sequestration

— McRaven: Threat from al Qaeda is 'much more broad' today

— Spy chief: 'We're not ready’

— Government buildings seized in Crimea

— Pentagon defends deadly Afghan mission

 

Please send tips and comments to Jeremy Herb, jherb@thehill.com, and Kristina Wong, kwong@thehill.com.

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