By Kristina Wong and Martin Matishak - 07/29/14 07:52 PM EDT
THE TOPLINE: The Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved Robert McDonald to run the troubled Veterans Affairs Department.
Lawmakers approved the former Procter & Gamble executive in a 97-0 vote, giving McDonald a clear mandate as he takes the helm of an agency roiled by months of scandals.
McDonald will “bring two very important qualities to the position," Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said. “He is familiar with the military as well as the needs of veterans ... [and] he will bring the tools of a CEO at a private corporation to the VA.”
President Obama also praised the vote in a statement.
“I know Bob will help us honor that commitment and make sure every veteran gets the care they deserve, the benefits they’ve earned, and the chance to pursue the American Dream they’ve risked so much to protect,” he said.
VA REFORM BILL SET FOR VOTE: The House on Wednesday is set to vote on a $17 billion deal to reform the scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs Department.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) predicted that a majority of GOP members would vote for the bipartisan legislation, even though it would add $12 billion to the deficit.
“Oh, absolutely. Oh, yeah,” he told reporters following a Republican conference. “I would not expect a lot of negative votes. Really, I have not heard a groundswell from the most conservative members.”
GOP leaders backed the bill and said they weren’t worried about the costs given the need to improve healthcare for veterans.
“We’re supporting this bill because we have serious problems at the Veterans Administration,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said at a press conference after the meeting. “This is about taking care of our veterans.”
The proposed bill also appears to be headed for smooth sailing in the Senate, as Republicans in that chamber appear ready to accept the deal.
“I’m sure there are going to be some that are going to oppose it because it’s not totally offset. That’s their prerogative,” said Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the top Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), one of a trio of GOP lawmakers who voted against the VA overhaul when it came up in the Senate last month, said he “can’t imagine the bill’s been constructed in such a way that I can support it.”
Yet other Republicans who have been critical of the VA in the past signaled they would support the measure.
“There are some things I probably don’t like, but what I like ... is it will give veterans an option,” said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.).
McCain argued that adding to the deficit was justified to help veterans.
“They can make their own defense, and I won’t try to defend it or speak for them,” he said of opponents. “If veterans dying is not an emergency and a rationale for emergency spending then I don’t know what emergency spending is.”
RUSSIA SENDING MORE MISSILE SYSTEMS TO REBELS: The Pentagon said Tuesday that Russia was still supplying pro-Russian militants in Ukraine with air defense systems similar to the one that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
"We do believe that some of the air defense systems that continue to flow up to the border and then across the border are of sufficient range and equivalent capability as to what we saw shoot down the Malaysia Airlines flight," said Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby.
"So it's not an insignificant capability that we continue to see flow into the hands of the separatists," Kirby said Tuesday at a Pentagon briefing.
The administration has tried to ramp up pressure on Russia in the past week, in advance of new U.S. and European Union sanctions on Moscow announced Tuesday.
Pentagon officials said last week that Russia was continuing to supply weapons to pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine, and were poised to send heavier rocket systems. They said Russian forces are also firing across the border onto Ukrainian military positions.
Officials also said there were upwards of 10,000 Russian troops that are positioned closer to the border than they were in March, after Russia annexed Crimea.
"These are very capable, very ready forces," Kirby said.
Lawmakers called upon the administration to provide Ukrainian forces with lethal aid.
"They've had for months a list ... I co-sponsored legislation that would give them anti-aircraft, anti-tank, small arms support, and also they need the intelligence to defend against the Russian attacks on their sovereignty, and the Russian-supported attacks by the separatists," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
"So there's a clear list, it's what we should be doing for them," she said.
PANEL CONDEMNS OBAMA OVER BERGDAHL SWAP: The House Armed Services Committee voted Tuesday to condemn President Obama for violating a law that requires Congress have 30 days' advance notice before the release of Guantánamo Bay detainees.
The vote, 34-25, condemned the president for deciding in May to release five senior Taliban leaders from the Guantánamo Bay detention facility without the notification required by law, in exchange for Afghanistan prisoner of war Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
“Today the Committee took one of many steps to hold the Administration accountable for breaking the law and putting Americans at risk with their ill-considered transfer of senior Taliban terrorists," Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said after the vote.
All Republicans present voted for the resolution, while only two Democrats, Reps. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), broke with their party to vote in favor.
Democrats on the committee accused their Republican colleagues of playing politics, as GOP lawmakers prepare to vote this week to authorize a lawsuit against the president for allegedly overstepping his constitutional authority.
Ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) had proposed an amendment that would express displeasure with the president's move but would not condemn Obama for violating the law. His amendment failed 19-40.
McKeon pointed out after the vote that although Smith's amendment failed, it was supported by many Democrats on the committee and proved that the majority disapproved with the president's actions.
"Either by voting in favor of the underlying resolution, or by supporting Mr. Smith’s amendment, nearly every member of this committee expressed their feelings about the president’s disregard for the law," McKeon said.
"That is a bipartisan rebuke no White House can be comfortable with," he added.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
-Feinstein: Interrogations report could be released during recess
-US accuses Russia of violating arms treaty
-Reid: House should talk about VA deal not impeachment
-Obama: New sanctions against Russia will ‘have an even bigger bite’
-Republicans call for ‘clean’ Iron Dome funding bill