OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Pentagon sticking by Obama budget cuts

The Topline: Pentagon officials said Thursday they are standing behind President Obama’s 2015 defense budget blueprint, despite the House Armed Services Committee batting down many of those proposals.

“We stand firmly behind the president's budget as submitted,” said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren. He added that it was long-standing policy not to comment on legislation that's being drafted.

The Armed Services committee unanimously passed its 2015 defense authorization bill just after midnight, early on Thursday, which if passed into law, would prevent many cuts the Pentagon says are needed. 

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The Pentagon planned to retire a Navy aircraft carrier and the Air Force's A-10 fleet, transfer the National Guard's Apache attack helicopters to active duty, reduce troop pay raises and benefits and close excess bases. The committee's bill would block all of those proposals. 

The full House will vote on the bill in two weeks. It would then have to be reconciled with a Senate version of the legislation.

Several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have indicated they would also reject plans to retire the A-10 and transfer the National Guard's attack helicopters to the active duty Army. 

Military chiefs have warned that if they are not allowed to make those cuts, they will have to redraft their 2015 defense budget requests. But on Thursday, Pentagon officials said it was still too early to predict the next step.

Shinseki to testify: It's been a rough week for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. After allegations that veterans at a second VA clinic were being placed on secret waiting lists to obscure long wait times, several lawmakers and veterans groups this week called for his resignation. 

On Thursday, the House Veterans Affairs Committee announced it was subpoenaing Shinseki to testify before the committee on the allegations, and separately the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee announced a hearing next Thursday where he would testify. 

The Senate committee's chairman, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said the hearing next Thursday will take a broader look at the overall VA healthcare system.

Sanders has not called for Shinseki's resignation, saying he would wait until the VA inspector general investigated the claims that veterans died while waiting for treatment.

“I expect the [VA] inspector general will conduct the investigation thoroughly and provide this committee with an objective analysis of these allegations,” he said. 

Sanders noted that "some 200,000 veterans get care every single day," and that "independent studies show that VA provides, in general, excellent care to our veterans." 

However, he added, "in a system as large and bureaucratic as the VA, it is imperative that we uncover the problems that exist in the system and address them boldly."

Senators applaud A-10 save: A group of GOP senators lauded the House Armed Services Committee for staving off the mothballing of the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft fleet for at least another year.

The panel, in its marathon mark up of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, easily adopted an amendment sponsored by Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) that delays the retirement of the aircraft, dubbed by troops as the “Warthog,” for one year and requires the Pentagon to study whether other aircraft can provide adequate close air support.

“We applaud the committee members for honoring our commitment to provide our troops the best possible close air support so they can accomplish their missions and return home safely,” Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said in a joint statement.

The Air Force wants to retire the 283-plane fleet to save $3.5 billion over the next five years.

The Republican senators vowed to defend the Warthog fleet when the Senate Armed Services Committee takes up its version of the defense authorization bill later this month.

Afghan visa revamp: A coalition of lawmakers debuted a proposal to allow more Afghan civilians who have served as interpreters and guides to get visas to the United States.

The legislation, endorsed by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-.N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) would prolong the 2009 Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) effort for another fiscal year.

The proposed measure would also expand the eligibility of the program to include Afghans who helped the International Security Assistance Force, media outlets and non-profits organizations, as well as their families.

It would also approve an additional 3,000 visas and allow any unused slots from fiscal 2014 to be carried over.

“We have a responsibility to fulfill the obligation to the thousands of civilians who risked their lives to help our country during a time of war,” Shaheen said at a joint press conference on the measure.

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