OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: House passes $521B defense policy bill

THE TOPLINE: The House passed the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act on Thursday in a 325-98 vote after considering more than 100 amendments.

The bill authorizes $521.3 billion for base defense programs, and $79.4 billion for overseas contingency operations.

It faces an Obama veto threat since it rejects many of the 2015 defense budget request recommendations, including proposals to retire an aircraft carrier and lay up cruisers, retire the A-10 fleet, reduce troop raises and benefits, and close excess military bases.

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"The bill provides our war fighters, veterans and their families with the care and support that they need, deserve, and have earned," said House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who is retiring this year. "The legislation guards against achieving false short-term savings at the expense of vital long-term strategic capabilities."

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the panel, though, criticized the legislation.

"I don't believe we did make a tough choice. When you look at the issues that we face in terms of the budget, we ducked every single one of them," Smith said.

Smith's amendment to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility failed 177-247.

The Obama administration has threatened to veto the bill over its restrictions against transferring the facility's detainees to the U.S.

"By eliminating unwarranted and burdensome restrictions relating to the transfer of Guantanamo detainees, his amendment would further our efforts to move past this chapter in U.S. history," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

The bill also includes reforms to how the military handles sexual assault, eliminating consideration of "good military character" in deciding whether someone is guilty.

SENATE ROLLS OUT ITS VERSION. The Senate Armed Services Committee unveiled its own $514 billion take on the defense budget blueprint.

The proposed measure differs from its House counterpart in several ways, including a “path” to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to panel Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

The budget blueprint includes $320 million to keep the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft fleet airborne for one more year by taking savings from personnel cuts indentified by the Government Accountability Office.

Senators also provided $650 million to refuel and overhaul the U.S.S. George Washington aircraft carrier and authorized the Navy secretary to find additional funds in other accounts to keep the ship active.

The measure mirrored the bill approved by the full House in rejecting a new round of base closures in 2017, and plans to consolidate TRICARE and reduce direct subsidies to commissaries.

The full text of the bill will be made available on Friday

SHINSEKI WON’T GO. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki promised to stay on the job until his agency concludes its examination into allegations of mismanagement and delayed medical care for veterans.

Shinseki told a small group of Capitol Hill reporters that he had not offered President Obama his resignation, despite increased bipartisan calls for him to step down.

“I serve at the pleasure of the president,” he said.

“I came here to do one thing, which is to take care of veterans families,” Shinseki added. “We’ve run hard for five years, I think we have good things to show for it, there’s more to be done.”

He said the review of VA medical treatment facilities is “about halfway through” and that he would deliver initial findings to the president some time next week.

RUSSIAN TROOPS MOVE OFF BORDER. The Pentagon said Thursday that it had seen signs some Russian troops were withdrawn from the Ukrainian border over the last 24 hours.

Pentagon officials cautioned that "it's too early to tell what it all means," noting that there were "tens of thousands" of troops in position.

Army Col. Steve Warren said Russia still held "a tremendous amount of combat power arrayed along the Ukrainian border."

"This combat power is destabilizing, and it is threatening, and contributing to the crisis in Ukraine," he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday said he had ordered the troop pullback, but the White House has been skeptical, saying it would welcome efforts to de-escalate the crisis over Ukraine, but insisting on proof.

The U.S. is continuing to show its support for the government in Kiev, sending the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf to the Black Sea.

The cruiser, which will arrive on Friday, will conduct training and security engagements with allies and partners, Warren said.

The deployment comes as Ukraine is preparing to conduct presidential elections on Sunday.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

—White House fears VA reform bill could mean ‘significant litigation’

—Pelosi: VA scandal ‘deadly serious’

—Senators take on cyber spying

—House reformers claim victory over NSA

—UK official: Syria likely to miss weapons deadline

 

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