By Martin Matishak and Kristina Wong - 07/15/14 06:37 PM EDT
THE TOPLINE: Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) scheduled a confirmation hearing next Tuesday for President Obama’s pick to run the troubled Veterans Affairs Department.
Robert McDonald, an Army veteran and retired Procter & Gamble chief executive, will face questions over his plans for reforming the beleaguered agency amid a scandal over fraudulent wait times for patients and new claims the VA mishandled disability claims in a rush to reduce a backlog for benefits.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the ranking Republican on the panel, said he was “ready to take up his nomination and move it and certainly don’t see anything that should stand in its way.”
The acting VA secretary, Sloan Gibson, though, will find himself on the hot seat Wednesday as he provides senators with an update on the agency’s efforts to fix the scandal-plagued healthcare system.
Gibson’s appearance before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will mark his first appearance on Capitol Hill since being tapped by President Obama to run the department following former Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation on May 30.
Gibson will discuss the steps the VA has taken after investigations uncovered rampant manipulation of patient data throughout the agency’s medical network.
Legislation to reform the VA, though, remains stalled as the House and Senate work to resolve differences in their two bills.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accused GOP House members of holding up the talks.
“We're having a little trouble getting the House to help us complete the conference,” he told reporters. “Just because we want something done when we're in conference doesn't mean it gets done.”
Reid said that if negotiations go on much longer, the House “should just take what we've passed in the Senate. “
Lawmakers are divided over how to fund VA reform legislation, with senators wanting the bill paid for with emergency spending and House members demanding offsets.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) hit back at Reid, accusing him of “purposely injecting politics into what has been a politics-free process until now.”
“Conference committee negotiations are going well, and I remain confident we will reach an agreement soon. But the primary focus remains on getting the deal done right rather than getting it done by a certain date,” Miller said in a statement.
NO F-35 SHOW AT FARNBOROUGH: The troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will not make its debut at an international air show, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.
“While we're disappointed that we're not going to be able to participate in the air show, we remain fully committed to the program itself and look forward to future opportunities to showcase its capabilities to allies and to partners,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
The Pentagon had grounded the entire F-35 fleet after an engine on an Air Force version of the jet caught fire when taking off on June 23.
Officials cleared the F-35 for limited flights on Monday night, giving air show attendees hope that the Marine Corps variant would show, but the Marine Corps commandant decided against it on Tuesday.
“When we operate aircraft, we look at many factors, to include operational risks, the weather, ground time, maintenance issues. All of these factors were weighed appropriately in making this difficult decision,” said Kirby.
Kirby stressed that the Pentagon remained “committed” to the program, and officials expected to restore the F-35 fleet to full operational capability in the “near future.”
“This by no means should signal any lack of commitment to the F-35 or to its future in the U.S. military or in those militaries of partner nations [that] want to purchase it,” he said.
“It's the next-generation fighter aircraft, and we remain committed to that.”
SENATE PANEL SAVES THE A-10: The A-10 “Warthog” received a new lease on life Tuesday when Senate appropriators allocated $338 million to maintain the attack aircraft fleet.
The move was part of a $489.6 billion defense spending bill proposed by the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. The bill also contains $59.7 million for overseas contingency operations, or war funding.
The Pentagon had proposed retiring the A-10 fleet, but subcommittee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he had to evaluate not only the merits of the aircraft, but the "political realities."
"I think the A-10 is a great aircraft. There are those that disagree in the Pentagon. The sentiment among the members is very strong when it comes to the A-10," he told reporters.
The panel also allocated $848.7 million to refuel the Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington, going against another Pentagon proposal to save money.
The bill would also keep Apache attack helicopters in the National Guard, instead of transferring them to the active Army, Durbin told reporters.
The committee also adopted a Pentagon proposal to only raise troop pay by 1 percent in 2015.
To pay for the programs, the bill proposed 517 specific cuts to programs for $11.7 billion in savings.
"It sets clear priorities, removes $11.7 billion in unnecessary funding and reinvests those funds where they are needed the most," Durbin said. "It also sets out to maintain the U.S. defense industrial base for the long term."
The bill heads to the full committee on Thursday.
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