Senate moves to veterans bill

The Senate took a procedural vote Tuesday to begin consideration of an omnibus veterans bill.

The Senate voted 99-0 to end debate on the motion to proceed to S. 1982, introduced by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But it’s unclear if enough Republicans will continue to support the measure beyond this procedural hurdle because of disagreements on how the legislation is paid for.

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The bill would boost veterans' healthcare programs, give veterans in-state tuition rates at all schools across the country and provide advanced appropriations for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It also seeks to permanently fix a cut to the growth rate of veterans' pensions. Earlier this year, Congress passed a bill to avoid a cut in the growth rate for current service members and veterans, but anyone enlisting after 2013 would still see a cut. Sanders’ bill would eliminate that cut as well.

“Congress cannot bring back to their families those who die in battle,” Sanders said. “[But] we can in fact — and it is our responsibility in fact — to do everything we can to help ease and ameliorate the problems facing our veterans and their families.”

Sanders pays for the nearly $23 billion bill by limiting overseas contingency funds from 2018-2021.

“The United States is finally winding down more than a decade of war in Afghanistan,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said before the vote Tuesday. “It is only fair that we use a small portion of those savings to invest in our returning veterans, who have given so much over the last 13 years to ensure our safety.”

Republicans have said the early troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq have overextended funds in the Overseas Contingency Operations account. They argue it’s not a real pay-for because those funds are essentially “off budget” and not subject to discretionary spending caps.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he plans to offer a GOP alternative. One of his major complaints with Sanders’s bill is that it increases the number of veterans who could qualify for disability benefits. Burr said Sanders’s bill would allow a veteran who is injured in the private sector to apply for VA disability benefits. The VA has an ever-increasing backlog, causing some veterans to wait more than a year to receive a decision on their benefits application.

“The time for appeals decisions has grown to years. It shouldn’t be like this — it’s absurd,” Burr said. “And we’re here debating in the Sanders’s bill a massive expansion of who is provided benefits under VA.

“It basically says to those warriors who have service-connected disabilities … you’re going to have to wait in a bigger line.”

Burr also said any expansion of VA services would require increased funding, while the country has a $17 trillion deficit. He said Sanders’s pay-for doesn’t make sense because it’s “one-time funding for a permanent program.”

It’s unclear if Reid will allow amendments to the bill, or if he'll use a procedural weapon known as “filling the tree” to prevent Republicans from offering amendments.

Republicans have sought unlimited amendments on most legislation, while Reid has said he wants to limit amendments to a few relevant issues.