GOP blocks veterans bill

Senate Republicans stopped Democrats from advancing a bill that would have expanded healthcare and education programs for veterans.

In a 56-41 vote Thursday, the motion to waive a budget point of order against the bill failed, as Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome the Republican roadblock.

GOP Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.) and Jerry Moran (Kan.) voted with Democrats.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) refused to allow a GOP substitute amendment to get an up-or-down vote because it included Iran sanctions, which he said were unrelated to veterans’ issues.

“I hope all the veterans groups have witnessed all the contortions the Republicans have done to defeat this bill,” Reid said Thursday. “Shame on Republicans for bringing base politics into a bill to help veterans.”

Republicans tried to force consideration of the GOP amendment, but failed to table Reid's pending amendments on a 44-52 vote.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said it was necessary to include the Iran sanctions measure in his GOP alternative because Reid had refused to hold a separate vote. Republicans also disagreed with the way the veterans bill was paid for.

Burr said he was not surprised that Reid once again blocked any Republican amendments.

“I thought it was very predictable even before the legislation came up,” he said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) bill, S. 1982, would have expanded veterans' healthcare programs, given veterans in-state tuition rates at all schools across the country and provided advanced appropriations for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It also sought 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’s bill would have eliminated that cut as well.

Sanders slammed Republicans for trying to attach the issue of Iran sanctions to the measure.

“Whatever your views are, it just does not belong in a veterans bill,” Sanders said at a press conference after the vote. “And I think the vast majority of the American people understand that. I found it rather incredible.

Sanders paid for the more than $20 billion bill by limiting overseas contingency funds from 2018-2021.

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.

“This bill proposes to spend more than we agreed to spend,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said before raising the budget point of order. “This bill creates new veterans’ programs and it’s not paid for — it’s all borrowed money.

“We’re not going to use some bogus gimmick to justify busting the budget.”

Sanders said it’s appalling that Republicans support tax breaks for billionaires but say there isn’t enough money to improve benefits for veterans.

Another GOP complaint was that Sanders’s bill increased 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.

It was also unclear how much expansion of benefits would cost long-term.

If Reid continues to block attempts to amend bills, little will be achieved during this legislative session, Republicans said.

“Unfortunately, it’s become standard practice around here for the majority to pursue partisan legislation in a take-it-or-leave-it manner,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday.

The Senate is expected in the coming weeks to consider competing military sexual assault bills from Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), though votes haven’t been scheduled yet.

Gillibrand’s bill has bipartisan support but is controversial because it would remove commanders from the decision process of whether to pursue a sexual assault case. 

— This story was updated at 3:45 p.m.

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