OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate passes bipartisan VA fix

THE TOPLINE: The Senate on Wednesday almost unanimously passed a bipartisan bill that attempts to end the troubles plaguing the Veterans Affairs Department’s medical network.

Lawmakers voted 93-3 in favor of the legislation which would give the VA secretary new latitude to fire senior executives at the agency and provide veterans more options to care.

ADVERTISEMENT
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, brokered the nearly $2 billion measure last week.

It also includes “choice cards” for veterans to see non-VA providers if they can’t get an appointment with the agency in a timely manner or live more than 40 miles from a clinic, and roughly $500 million for hiring additional doctors and nurses.

Both of the bill’s architects said the legislation was just the start of a process to fix the VA, citing news reports that the FBI may open up a criminal investigation into an agency hospital in Phoenix.

"Is this a final solution to these problems? No, but it is a beginning," McCain said. 

"Unfortunately the scandals haven't stopped,” he continued. “There will be other shoes that drop. Literally every day there's a new revelation."

Sanders promised his committee would work on the “serious problems facing other veterans communities” such as reproductive and dental care.

“We hope to be back on the floor again in the not too distant future,” Sanders said.

Both lawmakers said they hoped their bill would be conferenced with similar legislation passed by the House in the next couple of days before being sent off to President Obama for his signature.

“Many of the provisions included in today’s Senate-passed bill are based on ideas that have already cleared the House, so I’m hopeful that both chambers of Congress can soon agree on a final package to send to the president’s desk,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said in a statement.

HAGEL DEFENDS BERGDAHL SWAP. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel under tough questioning in Congress on Wednesday, defended the administration’s prisoner swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl as a part of the “dirty business” of war. 

“War is a dirty business,” he said. “And we don't like to deal with those realities, but realities they are.” 

Hagel is the first senior administration official to publicly testify before Congress on the prisoner exchange, which involved the release of five Taliban detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for Bergdahl. 

The exchange has been widely criticized by members of Congress, including some who say the administration broke the law by not notifying lawmakers in advance of the trade. A 2014 defense bill required the president to notify Congress 30 days in advance of transferring prisoners from Guantanamo.

“The law is the law,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House panel. “The way you challenge constitutionality is you go to court, and you figure out whether or not the courts say it's constitutional or not. And until the courts rule on that, it is the law.”

Hagel conceded that he and U.S. officials “could have done this better” in terms of notifying Congress, but argued the administration did the best it could given the “extraordinary situation.”

Hagel said the talks leading up to Bergdahl’s release began last September, and a proof of life video received in January showed that his health was “poor and possibly declining,” giving officials “growing urgency to act.” 

Talks were briefly broken off but then restarted again in April, when the U.S. began to intensify discussions with Qatar, which agreed to detain the Taliban individuals for a year and limit their activities. 

Hagel said after a final deal with Qatar on security measures was signed on May 12, Qatari officials warned that risks to Bergdahl’s safety were growing, and U.S. officials moved forward on the mechanics of the exchange. 

“We were told by the Qataris that a leak would end the negotiations for Bergdahl’s release. We also knew that he would be extremely vulnerable during any movement, and our military personnel conducting the hand-off would be exposed to a possible ambush or other deadly scenarios in very dangerous territory. 

“For all these reasons and more, the exchange needed to take place quickly, efficiently, and quietly. We believed this exchange was our last, best opportunity to free him,” Hagel said. 

A group of Republican senators have introduced a resolution demanding an investigation into whether the release hurt national security.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

-Durbin: Cantor shouldn’t affect Defense plan

-More detainee transfers soon? WH pushes back

-Poll: Bergdahl should be charged if he deserted

-Durbin opens door to saving A-10 fleet

-Ryan: Obama foreign policy ‘weak, indecisive’

 

Please send tips and comments to Kristina Wong, kwong@thehill.com, and Martin Matishak, mmatishak@thehill.com

Follow us on Twitter: @thehill, @kristina_wong, @martinmatishak