OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: VA chief unveils massive overhaul

THE TOPLINE: Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Monday unveiled what he touted as the “largest reorganization” in the agency’s history.

Under the realignment, the Veterans Affairs Department will add a new national customer service unit and network of veteran advisory councils that will tap state and local advocates and VA employees to suggest further improvements to the agency’s operations.

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McDonald said a “single regional framework” will also be created to streamline VA coordination and improve customer service and would allow veterans to navigate the agency more easily.

The department will also launch an internal site where employees can propose solutions and vote on the best ones.

The reorganization comes months after a scandal over patient wait times rocked the department. Federal investigations found systemic patient data manipulation and falsified records to cover up wait times.

The revamp, dubbed "MyVA," is designed to give veterans "a seamless, integrated and responsive customer service experience — whether they arrive at VA digitally, by phone or in person," according to McDonald.

Lawmakers and veterans advocacy groups warned that any reorganization of the VA must provide results.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), head of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, endorsed McDonald's moves but said the challenge he "must address" is ensuring that veterans get healthcare in a "timely manner."

“While I welcome this important initiative, the reorganization must be more than rhetoric and reshuffling management positions on paper to bring a real break with the past," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee said in a statement.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO and founder Paul Rieckhoff said that after “years of failure, missed deadlines and disappointment at VA, our veterans will only celebrate when we see results.”

“The path back to public trust will be long and hard. But we still believe we can get there and are standing by to help,” he added.

However, the remodel failed to impress one of the VA’s chief critics, House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who chided the agency for not announcing more firings.

“No one doubts that reforming VA is a tough job. But getting rid of failed executives should be the easiest part – not the most difficult,” Miller said.

 

IRAQ DEPLOYMENT ON HOLD FOR FUNDS: On Monday, the Pentagon made clear that the new batch of 1,500 U.S. troops the president has authorized to go to Iraq will not deploy until Congress approves the $5.6 billion White House request to fund the mission. 

“We need the funding in order to begin this phase of the operation,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said on Monday. “The 1,500 personnel that we announced on Friday will not begin to flow until this $5.6 billion dollars is approved.”

The $5.6 billion would add to the Pentagon's $58.6 billion war-funding budget for 2015. Defense officials say the White House has decided not to send any additional forces until Congress approves that money. 

A successful vote would provide some congressional buy-in for the deployment, which would double the number of U.S. troops in Iraq helping to fight Islamic militants. Some Democrats are already expressing doubts about the ramped up mission. 

"I think a lot of us are going to be very reluctant to support this kind of infusion of ground troops, absent some suggestion, some evidence that the Iraqis are doing what's necessary politically to complement this major infusion of American military resources," said Sen. Patrick Murphy (D-Conn.) Sunday on CNN.

The vote on the money is expected to happen as lawmakers take up a defense spending bill, or an omnibus bill encompassing the defense spending, during the lame-duck session of Congress.

The president has also called for a separate vote on authorizing the use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

A vote on authorization of military force could pit lawmakers leery of mission creep against those who say the president's strategy against ISIS needs to be more robust.

The House Armed Services Committee will be the first to question Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey since the administration's strategy was announced on Sept. 10. That hearing is scheduled for Thursday. 

 

MCCAIN SEES SHIFT TOWARD RADICAL ISLAM: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Monday warned that radical Islam is gaining ground thanks to the foreign policy decisions of President Obama.

“He came to the presidency saying he's going to get out of everywhere. I got to hand it to him, he's done that to a degree,” he said on Fox News.

“Look at the world in 2009, and look at the world today. My friends, it is dramatically shifted in favor of the forces of radical Islam, forces of terror, and they are now direct threats to the United States of America.”

McCain, who will likely chair the Senate Armed Services Committee next year, said the administration’s decision last week to send an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq to battle ISIS won’t be enough to defeat the terror group.

“Look, we're not winning there. We are going to have to have more boots on the ground because ... the only way you can really identify targets is to have boots on the ground,” he said. “You're going to have to have more trainers in there.”

McCain ripped Obama for “parsing words” on whether the soldiers would serve in a combat role and accused the president of treating the air campaign against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria as "two separate conflicts." He also criticized the decision to draw down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

ISIS CHIEF WOUNDED?: Defense officials said Monday they had no evidence to corroborate reports that ISIS's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed or injured in airstrikes over the weekend. 

Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said al-Baghdadi was not targeted specifically, although U.S. military forces did target a 10-vehicle convoy, which they had reason to believe consisted of ISIS field commanders.

Iraqi officials reportedly said about 50 were killed in the strike. 

The strike occurred over the weekend near Mosul. U.S. Central Command said Monday it had conducted 23 airstrikes in Syria Nov. 7-10, and 18 in Iraq during that same time. 

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

— Plane trouble delays North Korea rescue mission

— Obama extends national emergency for WMDs

— TSA eases airport screening for cadets

— Study: Private sector to hire 200,000 veterans

— Congress should expand rental aid for veterans, budget group says

 

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