OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Nominee vows to ‘transform’ VA

THE TOPLINE: President Obama’s nominee to lead the Veterans Affairs Department sailed through his confirmation hearing on Tuesday and vowed to “transform” the agency.

“There is a lot of work to do to transform the department. It won’t be easy, but it is essential and can be achieved,” said former Procter & Gamble executive Robert McDonald, President Obama’s pick to run the embattled VA.

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Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the panel would vote on McDonald’s nomination Wednesday. The nominee could take the helm before the August recess, but it is still unclear when the full Senate will vote on the nomination.

If confirmed, McDonald, an Army veteran, will take over an agency battered by a scandal over falsified patient wait times that made it appear veterans were receiving treatment in a timely fashion. He said he would hold the VA’s employees accountable as chief.

“Those employees that have violated the trust of the department and of veterans must be, and will be, held accountable,” said McDonald.

He promised that within the first 90 days of his tenure he would “deliver the needed reforms our veterans deserve," beginning on day one with a nationwide video conference call with the agency’s more than 300,000 employees.

His plan also included quarterly video conferences with employees and managers and extensive travel to field offices around the country.

“I desperately want this job because I think I can make a difference,” he told Sanders, who asked why he wanted to be the VA’s chief.

“If not me, then who?”

 

VA REFORM PRICE TAG DISPUTED: A bipartisan bill to fix the Veterans’ Affairs Department will likely end up costing less than estimated, according to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

“We’re going to go considerably lower than $35 billion,” Sanders said in response to a previous estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that the bill would add $35 billion to the deficit over 10 years.

Negotiations by House and Senate lawmakers remain in flux as conferees huddle to reach a compromise bill before they leave Washington for the recess.

Sanders late Monday announced he would be open to some amount of offsets, or budget cuts, to help pay for an eventual bill, a minor concession from his previous stance that it should be funded by emergency spending.

However, Sanders refused to say where those cuts could be made.

“I can’t negotiate through the media. That would not be a good idea,” he told reporters.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) accused his colleagues of dragging their feet on the compromise measure.

“It would be terrible on the part of the United States Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives if we fail to reach an agreement to conclude this work,” Moran said during McDonald’s nomination hearing.

He said that if a deal was not done by the time Congress adjourns “we ought not adjourn for an August recess in the absence of us reaching a conclusion.”

 

NEW UKRAINE INTEL: Senior U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that Russia was responsible for "creating the conditions" that led to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week, but gave no direct evidence of Russian government involvement.

The officials offered additional intelligence during a briefing suggesting the jet was shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired from Ukrainian territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Officials said Moscow had continued to provide those groups with weapons even after the crash.

But they cautioned that they still did not know exactly who fired the missile or whether any Russian operatives were present at the missile launch, or whether the missile crew was trained in Russia.  

The Obama administration is seeking to raise pressure on Russia and rally international support for tougher sanctions.

 

LAWMAKERS WANT TO BLOCK ARMS SALE: A bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging President Obama to do more to prevent the French government from selling warships to Russia after the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

In a letter to Obama on Tuesday, the lawmakers asked him to personally appeal to French President Francois Hollande to suspend the $1.6 billion sale of two amphibious assault ships and lead NATO in halting all arms sales to Moscow.

"At a time when Russia is illegally annexing Crimea, supporting armed rebels to fight against a democratically-elected government in Ukraine, and cutting off natural gas supply to Ukraine and threatening shortages in the rest of Europe, it is inconceivable that any of our NATO allies should be providing Russia with offensive military capabilities," the letter said. 

Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Bill Keating (D-Mass.) are among the lawmakers who signed the letter to Obama.

Three other senators called for broadening sanctions against Russia's defense, energy, and financial firms on Tuesday, including a Russian arms company Rosoboronexport, which has a deal with the Pentagon to supply Afghanistan with helicopters. 

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to Obama, urging him to "impose immediate broad sanctions against Russia's defense sector, including state-owned Rosoboronexport." 

The senators also urged the president not to wait for Europe to impose sanctions on Moscow. 

European Union foreign ministers reportedly announced before the letter’s release that the EU would sanction further Russian individuals and groups to be announced by Thursday.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: 

--9/11 panel: ‘History may be repeating itself’

--Inhofe calls for return of Iran sanctions

--Jones: Congress should 'stop wasting money' on Afghan war

--McCain: Putin 'getting away with murder'

--Albright: Operation hurts Israel’s ‘moral authority’

 

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