OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: $17.6B VA request adds to reform bill woes

THE TOPLINE: A new spending request from the Veterans Affairs Department is complicating the already contentious negotiations over legislation to revamp the troubled agency.

Acting VA chief Sloan Gibson told a Senate panel his department needs $17.6 billion in additional funds over the next three years to whittle patient wait times and handle growing patient demand.

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Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the additional funds should be included in talks between House and Senate lawmakers on a VA reform bill to reform the agency’s medical system.

In a floor speech, Sanders reminded his colleagues that fixing the VA would be a “very, very expensive process” and fully acknowledged the new figure represents a “very big price tag.”

Republicans quickly balked at giving the scandal-plagued VA even more money.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few months, it’s that we can’t trust VA’s numbers,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

“It would be an act of budgetary malpractice to blindly sign off on this request,” he added.

Lawmakers have been negotiating on the VA reform bill for a month and with only two weeks left until the August recess tempers are beginning to flare.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blamed House GOP members for the hold up earlier this week. Miller responded that Reid was “injecting politics” into the talks.

Lawmakers were already split over how to fund the measure, with the Senate calling for emergency funding and the House demanding offsets.

Sanders this week admitted the divide over paying for the bill was a significant hurdle, but insisted lawmakers could strike a deal.

He said it was still his “hope and expectation” to get the conference done before recess.

 

DOD ‘SLUSH FUND’? The Afghan war is ending in December, but the Obama administration will still need $60 billion in wartime spending next year, defense officials testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Lawmakers criticized the request during a hearing Wednesday, with some questioning if the Pentagon sought a “slush fund” to avoid defense budget caps under sequestration.

“The American taxpayer is fed up and broke,” said Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.). “I don't know why you need this money, it's just a slush fund anyway.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work defended the figure, saying it lower than the 2014 request, and “reflects a continued, downward trajectory of war-related spending as we conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan.”

Work said $53.4 billion would go to Afghan war-related costs, including support for local forces and NATO partners, bringing home and resetting equipment and personnel, “classified operations,” and enabling a “vast range of support activities” in the region.

Another $5 billion would go towards the president’s new counterterrorism partnership fund, and $1 billion to reassure U.S. allies in Europe, given recent Russian aggression.

Other lawmakers demanded more information about the president’s $5 billion counterterrorism fund, which would include $2.5 billion to train and equip foreign militaries, $1.5 billion for a Regional Stabilization Initiative for the Syrian conflict, $500 million for military training and equipping of vetted Syrian opposition forces, and another $500 million for crisis response.

“I support the larger strategy for this money, but I'm very concerned about the specifics,” said Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

Duckworth said she was concerned the money could be spent on other programs without proper congressional oversight, a worry shared by fellow lawmakers.

“This country would be in a war in Syria right now had Congress not objected,” said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.). “If the president had this authority, we’d be involved in a war with Syria right now. Americans are tired of being at war.”

At one point during the hearing, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Calif.), the panel's ranking member, became frustrated with defense officials' lack of details on how the administration planned to train and equip Syrian rebels.

"You need to do better than 'it's classified'!" he told the defense officials.

 

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-Senators vow to reassert America’s rocket power

-Paul: Perry ‘name-calling’ in isolationism debate

 

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