OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: VA talks deadlocked?

THE TOPLINE: Bipartisan negotiations to finalize a bill to overhaul the Veterans Affairs’ Department hit an impasse on Thursday as lawmakers publicly chastised one another over the legislation’s potential price tag.

The month-long talks have been stalled over how to pay for any eventual measure, and it appeared lawmakers may not be able to approve the bill before the August recess. House Republicans have demanded offsets to cover any costs, while Senators believe it should be funded with emergency spending that would add to the deficit.

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Negotiations were further complicated last week when the VA announced it would need $17.6 billion in additional funds over the next three years to meet growing patient demand.

That request has been dismissed by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miler (R-Fla.) who knocked the VA for not providing enough details on how the money would be spent and for submitting it outside the normal appropriations process.

Miller’s upper chamber counterpart, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said Miller had rejected a proposal that would tackle the agency’s problems and incorporate the new request for less than $25 billion.

He took to the Senate floor to denounce Miller for “unilaterally” calling the conference committee together to vote on his own $10 billion VA remedy, a charge the Florida lawmaker rejected.

“This attempt to characterize this as a unilateral move? ... Whatever,” he told reporters after the meeting, which was attended by 14 Republican lawmakers and one House Democrat.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the architects of the Senate’s overhaul bill, asked all parties to “cool down some” and get back to the negotiating table.

Speaking at an afternoon press conference, Sanders offered to stay in Washington to hammer out a compromise.

"So I say to Mr. Miller, trust me I would very much like to be back in Vermont this weekend, believe me I would. But I am prepared to be here this weekend, I am prepared to be here tomorrow evening to start serious negotiations."

The day ended with the House narrowly defeating a motion by Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) to instruct House negotiators to simply adopt the Senate-passed bill.

"Both the Senate and the House have taken action to make real, substantive changes at the VA. I voted for many of these measures in the House, but the Senate's plan is comprehensive, bipartisan, and is the best opportunity for the quick action that our veterans deserve," Peters said.

Miller argued said the motion to instruct was unnecessary.

"We are trying to work out a deal with the Senate, but I submit to this body today that these motions to instruct are clearly becoming unproductive, are slowing down our process, and unfortunately, I think they are being used as nothing more than a political ploy," Miller said.

The measure failed 205-207, with all no votes from Republicans.

 

RUSSIA FIRING ARTILLERY INTO UKRAINE: The United States has "evidence" that Russia is firing artillery from within its territory to attack Ukrainian military troops, a State Department spokeswoman said Thursday. 

Spokeswoman Marie Harf said the charges were based on new intelligence information. 

She said the U.S. also has evidence Russia intends to supply "heavier, more powerful rocket launchers to separatists,” but declined to provide further specifics.

Harf's remarks represent the first time a U.S. official has said that weapons from inside Russian were being fired into Ukraine.

The charges are the latest as the Obama administration looks to build international support for tougher sanctions on Russia. 

Last Thursday, a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over eastern Ukraine, allegedly by pro-Russian militants, killing all 298 people on board.  

U.S. officials say the flight was brought down by a surface-to-air missile fired from territory controlled by the militants and have accused Russia of providing those groups with weaponry and other assistance.

Russia's ambassador to London said Thursday that Russian had never given weapons to separatists, The Guardian reported.

"The case, as is admitted, is built upon photos and messages from social media sites, placed by Ukrainian authorities and since then proved to be forgeries," Alexander Yakovenko told journalists at the Russian embassy in London.

"Naturally, our American partners say that they have no way of certifying the authenticity of those materials."

 

IRAQ HEARINGS, DAY TWO: Top State and Defense officials testified on the Hill for a second day to explain the administration's response to an advance by the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

Officials said the plan was to help Iraq establish a federalist government, and restructure its security forces so that local officials were in charge of security in their area. 

Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, said Baghdad was already seeing progress on forming a new government, with the election of a new parliament and speaker, as well as president on Thursday. 

He said Iraq now has a 15-day clock to name a prime minister, and then 30 days to form a cabinet. Iraq is also retraining 10,000 soldiers from four army divisions that fled the advance of ISIS in northern Iraq. 

That new government should be embraced and supported, McGurk said. 

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. Central Command, was in Iraq Thursday discussing with local officials how best to assist the effort, he said.

However, lawmakers expressed doubt over those plans, and whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would step down and if a new leader could help Iraq undertake political reforms. 

"Many look and say that what is happening on the ground is accelerating towards a breakup of Iraq," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

"The question is, can you even get to a federalist model the way things are evolving in Iraq?" he asked

"I think we're in a race against time. There's no question," McGurk said.

"There are a handful of very capable leaders who may emerge as the next — as the next prime minister of Iraq, but we're gonna have to see this one unfold fairly rapidly over the coming days," McGurk said.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

- McConnell introduces rival Iron Dome bill

- Democrat threatens to block arms sales to Iraq

- Energy nominee highlights nuclear weapons experience

- Israel flight ban 'prudent,' Obama says

- Graham: 'Administration throwing Israel overboard'

 

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