By Martin Matishak and Kristina Wong - 05/06/14 06:48 PM EDT
The Topline. Pressure grew Tuesday on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, with more outraged lawmakers calling for him to step down after reports that veterans died while waiting to receive care at VA hospitals across the country.
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and two other Republican senators called for Shinseki to go.
“The President needs to find a new leader to lead this organization out of the wilderness, and back to providing the service our veterans deserve,” Cornyn said in a statement.
But several key lawmakers stopped short of calling for Shinseki’s head.
Both Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also criticized the secretary, but did not call for him to step down.
“A change in leadership might be a good step in the right direction,” McConnell suggested.
Shinseki is on the hot seat after allegations surfaced this week that clerks at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Fort Collins, Colo. were instructed last year to falsify appointment records so it appeared that doctors met the VA’s goals of seeing patients within 14 days.
A CNN report last month revealed that administrators at a VA hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., also hid the actual wait times of veterans seeking treatment.
The White House defended Shinseki on Thursday, saying President Obama had confidence in his ability to run the agency.
“The president remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the department and to take appropriate action based on the IG's findings,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
But lawmakers want more answers and say that the VA must take steps to prevent such mistakes in the future.
“I do know he is a fine man, but you got to be accountable, so we'll see,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“He seems to be playing catch up when it comes to day-to-day healthcare,” he added of the embattled VA chief. “He’s going to have to up his game, that’s for sure.”
A-10 tug of war: A quarter of GOP senators on Tuesday shot down a House proposal to remove the Air Force’s venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II fleet from active duty and put it in storage.
House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) on Monday included the possible compromise in his mark of the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) dismissed the proposed scheme to mothball the A-10, known better as the “Warthog” among troops, saying in a joint statement that the plan was a “codification of the Air Force’s short-sighted and dangerous proposal to divest their most combat-effective and cost-efficient close air support aircraft.”
The Air Force wants to retire its 283-plane fleet in order to save $3.5 billion over the next five years. Service officials claim they can fulfill the Warthog’s close air support mission with other platforms like the F-16 fighter and the B-1 bomber.
McCain and Graham vowed to block any attempt to take the A-10 out of the Air Force inventory when the Senate Armed Services Committee takes up its version of the defense authorization measure later this month.
“We will have amendments,” McCain said.
Inhofe trashes compensation cuts: Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) on Tuesday condemned the Obama administration’s proposed changes to military pay and benefits.
“We’re telling them they just cost us too much, that they constitute a ‘ticking time-bomb,’ and that their sacrifice is ‘eating us alive,’” Inhofe said in his opening statement at a hearing on military compensation.
“We are telling them that we are looking for a way out of fulfilling our commitments to them,” he added. “This is not the right signal to send those who volunteered to serve in time of war.”
In its fiscal year 2015 budget request the Defense Department put forward a package of cost-cutting measures it says must be enacted in order to stem the rising tide of troop benefits.
The proposals, which total more than $2 billion, would consolidate TRICARE, the healthcare system for military families, require active duty members to pay up to six percent of their housing bill, and reduce direct subsidies for commissaries.
The Pentagon’s measures have already been tossed out by House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) in his mark of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
Inhofe said the Defense Department was forcing lawmakers into making a “false choice between paying our troops and their families what they deserve and giving them the training and capabilities required to accomplish their mission and return home safely to their loved ones.
“This is an irresponsible and reckless choice,” he said.
Smith to propose GTMO, BRAC amendments: Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) announced on Tuesday that he planned to propose two controversial amendments to the 2015 defense bill being finalized this week by the House Armed Services Committee.
Smith, the panel's ranking member, said he would propose an amendment to lift restrictions barring the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees to the U.S., and the use of funds to construct or modify facilities for detainees in the U.S.
He also said he would propose an amendment calling for the closure of excess military bases in the U.S., known as Base Closure and Realignment, or "BRAC.” Smith's colleagues in Congress have staunchly opposed another wave of base closures because of the financial impact to local communities and because of lower savings than expected from previous rounds.
His amendment will contain provisions to make sure there are savings from another round of closures, Smith said in a statement Tuesday.
“The Department of Defense estimates it has excess infrastructure capacity, and this excess takes money away from training, maintenance, and operations," he said. "In the current budget environment, where important programs are being cut across the board, this is a waste of scare resources."
Smith first announced the BRAC amendment on Thursday, but said he did not have "any illusion" as to what the outcome would be, acknowledging the strong opposition.
"[But] its important to start that conversation," he said.
The House Armed Services Committee will meet at 10:00am to begin their markup of the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. Proceedings are expected to last until the wee hours of the morning on Thursday as members engage in what one senior Democrat last week dubbed an “amendment fest” to set the Pentagon’s spending priorities.
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