Week ahead: VA reform gets a checkup

Lawmakers will have a busy week with the August recess fast approaching as they review reform efforts at the Veterans Affairs Department and move a 2015 Defense spending bill.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson will testify Wednesday before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, his first appearance on Capitol Hill since scandals over falsified patient wait times forced former Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in May.

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The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday will also hold a hearing to evaluate best practices in private medicine and compare them to the VA healthcare system.

The hearings could inform negotiators trying to hammer out a conference bill that would, in part, give the secretary enhanced powers to fire poorly performing officials and allow some veterans to receive outside care.

A compromise bill has been held up amid a dispute over the costs for reforming the troubled healthcare system.

The Congressional Budget Office last week revised its score on the Senate bill, saying it will cost $38 billion a year to implement starting in 2016. That score, down from the initial $50 billion estimate, could ease the way for an agreement.

President Obama’s nominee for VA secretary, former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald, will also continue meeting with Senate lawmakers ahead of his confirmation hearing.

McDonald last week sat down with a handful of lawmakers, including Senate VA panel Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who came away impressed by his qualifications.

Lawmakers will also be busy with money matters, as the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee will finally mark up its draft of the fiscal 2015 Pentagon spending bill on Tuesday.

Supporters of the A-10 “Warthog” aircraft will be watching closely, with panel Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) hinting that lawmakers could reject the Air Force’s proposal to retire the venerable fleet.

The House Appropriations Committee is the only panel to approve mothballing the attack fighter, but that decision was overturned by the full House.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee will take up the spending bill on Thursday.

The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday will review the administration’s $58.6 billion request to fund combat operations around the globe.

The Overseas Contingency Operations fund was created to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars but has recently been used to cover other operations previously funded from the services’ base budgets.

Lawmakers must also act on a number of military posts. The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday will vote on the nomination of Gen. Joseph Dunford to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps.

Dunford, who most recently commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is likely to face tough questions on the administration’s policies, including his role in Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from that country by the end of 2016.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a meeting on Tuesday about Iraq, looking at the U.S. response to the security meltdown there. The president has approved about 800 troops to be deployed to Iraq to advise government security forces trying to fight back against the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Off Capitol Hill, current Marine Corps chief Gen. James Amos will speak at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday about the challenges facing his service.

And on Thursday, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), head of the House Armed Services Readiness subcommittee, will lead a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies about how the U.S. military can maintain its agility in an age of severe budget restraints.

 

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