OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: House adopts VA reform bill

THE TOPLINE: The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a $17 billion overhaul of the Veterans Affairs Department.

The 420-5 vote sends a conference agreement hammered out by negotiators in both chambers to the Senate, where it is expected to be approved on Thursday.

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The three-year bill provides $10 billion in funding to allow veterans to get medical treatment at non-VA providers. Another $5 billion would go toward allowing the department to hire more medical staff.

The measure also includes around $1.5 billion in funding for the VA to lease space at 27 facilities across the U.S.

Negotiators had agreed that $12 billion of the total cost would be covered by emergency spending that would add to the deficit, leading some to question how many Republican votes the compromise package would get.

Ultimately, five Republicans voted no: Reps. Rick Crawford (Ark.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Jack Kingston (Ga.), Mark Sanford (S.C.) and Steve Stockman (Texas).

The other $5 billion of the bill’s cost will be offset through spending cuts at the VA.

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and other backers contended the emergency spending was appropriate to ensure that veterans receive immediate care.

"It's not a blank check for a broken system," Miller said prior to the vote. 

The new bill would also provide the VA secretary new power to fire underperforming executives.

 

LAWMAKERS WANT TO ARM UKRAINE: More Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee want the administration to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine.

“We should allow them to have types of lethal equipment, which are not the most provocative, but which are defensive,” Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters following a classified briefing from administration officials.

His comments put him squarely on the side of other panel members who argue President Obama should provide military equipment to Kiev in the face of Russian aggression.

To date, the U.S. has only provided non-lethal aid. Ukraine's defense minister on Monday asked for more military assistance.

“The administration needs to provide the military and the lethal support that the Ukrainian military has asked [for] so that they can defend themselves against Russian aggression,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said Tuesday. 

Ayotte’s comments were echoed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“It's shameful that we won't give them weapons with which to defend themselves,” he said.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) on Wednesday also said the administration should begin giving military aid to Ukraine.

“I think it's going to boil down over the course of the next six months that we need to supply them with the weapons so that they can protect themselves,” he said.

Levin said he disagreed with Obama’s present stance of letting Ukrainian and Russian forces fight it out.

"What the president said ... is not satisfactory to me, when he said 'we're hoping for a peaceful outcome,’” he said. “Obviously we are.

“I don’t think it’s defensible to draw a line between lethal and non-lethal as to what type of assistance we provide,” Levin added.

 

AIR FORCE DEFENDS A-10 RETIREMENT: The Secretary of the Air Force on Wednesday stood by her department’s proposal to retire the A-10 fleet, arguing the United States has plenty of replacement aircraft available should the nation land in an armed conflict.

"It's possible we could get into something else where we would need higher levels of close air support in the next year or two or three," Deborah James told Pentagon reporters.

"And if that is the case, we've got it. We've got the F-16. We've got the F-15E," she said, referring to other aircraft that could perform the mission. "So the close air support mission is a sacred mission. And we got it."

But Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), the Senate’s top A-10 supporter, issued a statement after the briefing Wednesday that noted the Iraqi government was currently using similar aircraft to battle terrorists.

"It is worth noting that the SU-25 'Frogfoot' — the inferior Russian version of the A-10 — was recently sent to Iraq to battle ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] forces there," she said.

"Evidently, the Iraqis believe such a [close air support]-focused aircraft can operate effectively against the ISIL forces that are operating in Syria and Iraq," said Ayotte, whose husband was an A-10 pilot.

The Air Force recommended earlier this year that Congress retire the A-10 fleet in 2015 to save $4 billion dollars. So far, the House, and both the Senate Armed Services and Senate Appropriations Committees have rejected that plan.

"I appreciate the difficult budget environment the Air Force confronts, but it's important that the debate going forward be based on facts rather than arguments that do not hold water," Ayotte said.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

-Inhofe pleads with GOP to file defense amendments now

-Chairman on VA scandal: ‘We have not hit the bottom’

-Bergdahl could face questioning next week

-Russia scoffs at latest sanctions from US, EU

-House passes resolution to condemn Hamas for Israel rocket attacks

 

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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