OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Biden urges quick action on VA bill, nominee

THE TOPLINE: Vice President Biden on Monday urged lawmakers to stop dragging their feet and approve bipartisan legislation to revamp the Veterans Affairs Department.

"It is time to get it done now," Biden said in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in St. Louis. "Stop fooling around. Get it done now."

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The nearly month-long talks between House and Senate lawmakers over a compromise bill that would overhaul the VA’s healthcare system and grant the agency chief new powers have seemingly stalled over how to fund the measure.

Senate Democrats and some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), want to pay for the costs of a bill with emergency spending that would be added to the budget deficit. House Republicans want to pay for the measure with offsetting budget cuts.

Late on Monday, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) issued a brief statement on the talks. He said his staff, along with that of his House counterpart Veterans Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), is “working very hard to reach an agreement.”

“Given the ideological differences between the House and the Senate, these are very tough negotiations but I still hope and believe that we can come to an agreement,” said Sanders.

Biden also called on Congress to confirm President Obama’s nominee to lead the troubled department. 

"Congress has a job to do," Biden said. "We urge them to quickly confirm Bob McDonald and finish the work on the veterans legislation currently in conference."

McDonald, a former Procter & Gamble executive will face a confirmation hearing in the Senate on Tuesday.

While his nomination is widely expected to be approved, the hearing will be McDonald’s first opportunity to share his vision for fixing the scandal-plagued department with the public. 

 

MEDAL OF HONOR AWARDED: President Obama bestowed the nation’s highest award for valor on Monday to Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts, for his actions fighting off an enemy attack on an outpost in Wanata, Afghanistan, in 2008.

Pitts is the ninth living veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars to receive the Medal of Honor.

Around 200 insurgents opened fire on the outpost during the attack, ultimately leaving nine dead and 27 others wounded.

Pitts, injured in his arms and legs by shrapnel, lobbed hand grenades at the enemy as they approached and pulled himself up to man a machine gun. After reinforcements arrived, the 28-year-old helped coordinate an aerial attack that eventually drove the enemy back.

“One soldier described it as hell on earth,” Obama said during the West Wing ceremony.

 

PRESSURE ON RUSSIA: President Obama said Monday the burden was "now on Russia" to demand separatists in Ukraine offer open and unfettered access to the crash site of a downed Malaysia Airlines passenger jet. 

"Given its direct influence over the separatists, Russia and President Putin in particular have a direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation," Obama said.

"The world deserves to know exactly what happened," he added. 

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said soon after that rebels in eastern Ukraine agreed to hand over bodies of crash victims and grant access to the site. 

The UN Security Council also unanimously adopted a resolution calling for an indpendent investigation into the crash of the jetliner.

U.S. officials say they have evidence that the plane was brought down by a surface-to-air missile fired from territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists, who have received military equipment from Moscow.

The European Union's foreign ministers are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss possible steps to punish Russia for continuing support of the separatists. 

The White House said Monday that additional sanctions for Russia were “on the table.”

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

-Senators propose visa increase for Afghan civilians

-Blunt, McCaskill slam ‘shameful’ VA crisis response

-Oklahoma Republicans worry about use of military bases for child migrants

-UN Security Council approves crash probe

-WH: Further Russia sanctions 'on the table'

 

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

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