OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: McKeon unveils defense budget roadmap

The Topline. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), on Monday unveiled his defense spending plan for fiscal 2015.

The proposed National Defense Authorization Act provides $495.8 billion for the Defense Department budget, $17.9 billion for Energy Department defense programs and $79.4 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations funding.

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While the dollar amounts reflect the administration’s original spending requests, McKeon’s markup proposes a different path to best get the military’s finances in order, rejecting many of the Pentagon’s preferred cuts.

For example, the bill blocks any attempt by the Air Force to retire the U-2 spy plane and prevents the service from putting the A-10 Thunderbolt II, also known as the “Warthog,” permanently out to pasture, forcing the Pentagon to instead place the entire 283-plane fleet in storage.

McKeon dismissed Pentagon calls for a new round of base closures in 2017 and proposed cutting at least $1.4 billion from the Pentagon’s training, repair and operations and maintenance accounts.

The chairman also roundly rejected the Defense Department’s push for compensation reform, such as having military families pay more for their healthcare and housing costs, and reducing commissary subsidies.

A summary of the bill claims it adheres to the spending caps laid out by sequestration, yet it provides no offsets for the retained troop benefits. Rather, the measure urges the White House to find “alternatives” elsewhere in the DOD budget to make up for the shortfall.

The full committee is set to take up the measure on Wednesday, with proceedings likely to last well into Thursday morning.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the panel’s top Democrat, quickly criticized McKeon’s legislation.

“This year, we had two options: we could have stepped up and made the difficult choices in regard to retiring aging weapons systems and platforms, authorized a [base closure round], or made changes to military compensation and benefits or ended sequestration. We decided to do neither,” he said in a statement.

 

American Legion wants VA resignations: The largest military veterans advocacy group called on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and other department leaders to resign on Monday. 

“As national commander of the nation’s largest veterans service organization, it is with great sadness that I call for the resignations of Secretary Shinseki, Under Secretary of Health Robert Petzel and Under Secretary of Benefits Allison Hickey,” said Daniel Dellinger of The American Legion.

The last time the Legion called for the resignation of a cabinet-level official was in 1941 when the group urged then-Labor Secretary Ray Marshall to step down.

Dellinger said VA officials have demonstrated “poor oversight and failed leadership," and that a series of scandals has "infected" the entire system. 

Those scandals include last month's revelation that the VA system in Phoenix, Ariz. had been using a secret waiting list that may have resulted in the deaths of 40 veterans, and a USA Today report on Monday that found a VA clinic in Fort Collins, Colo. falsified records to meet the agency's goal of patients receiving appointments within two weeks. 

“The American Legion expects when such errors and lapses are discovered, that they are dealt with swiftly and that the responsible parties are held accountable,” Dellinger said. “This has not happened at the Department of Veterans Affairs. There needs to be a change, and that change needs to occur at the top.”

 

Work sworn in: Former Navy undersecretary Robert Work on Monday was sworn in as the 32nd deputy Defense secretary.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel administered the oath of office to his new No. 2 in a small ceremony at the Pentagon. Work, a retired Marine Corps colonel, replaces Christine Fox who had served in an acting capacity since late last year.

Fox and her predecessor Ashton Carter had “both distinguished themselves while deputy secretary" and "left a legacy of excellence,” Work said in a brief statement released by the Pentagon.

 

African base deal reached: President Obama announced Monday that the U.S. is signing a long-term lease with the nation of Djibouti to continue operating from Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion post, which is the launchpad for drones and other counter-terrorism missions in Africa. 

Obama hailed the base in Africa as "extraordinarily important" and "a critical facility" during a meeting with Djibouti President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh at the White House.

"We could not do it without the president's cooperation. We're grateful for him agreeing for a long-term presence there," Obama said.

The base has been central to U.S. military efforts against the militant al-Shabab organization, a Somalian al Qaeda cell. The Pentagon also coordinates drone missions in Yemen and Somalia, both adjacent to Djibouti, from the base.

According to The Washington Post, F-15 fighters also operate from the base, which houses 3,200 U.S. troops, civilians and contractors, including 300 special operations personnel. The president did not disclose the length or terms of the lease agreement.

"Al-Shabab obviously has carried out operations throughout East Africa, and there is a significant presence of soldiers from Djibouti who are participating in the multinational force that has been able to push back al-Shabab's control over large portions of Somalia," Obama said.

Guelleh thanked Obama for U.S. development assistance and said the base agreement would "reinforce our partnership and our relationship."

"We do that all for peace in the world and, in particular, for peace in Africa," Guelleh said.

 

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