CBO lowers score on Senate veterans bill

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has released a new score for a Senate bill to overhaul the Veterans Affairs Department that is considerably lower than its previous estimate.

The new CBO score could make it easier for Congress to move a final bill, a goal of House and Senate negotiators trying to reach an agreement that must be approved by both chambers.

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The new score, which uses the House bill's number and title, says the Senate fix, if “fully phased in” by 2016, will cost $38 billion a year. That’s much less than CBO’s “preliminary” estimate that the legislation would cost roughly $50 billion a year to implement.

Despite the lower figure, the agency notes, “such spending would increase over time with growth in the number of veterans and rising medical cost per enrollee.”

Cost has emerged as a real problem for the 28-member panel working to hash out a deal by the August recess.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, hinted negotiators needed a new price tag before they could move forward.

“We’re reviewing it,” a House aide said.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he wasn't surprised by the new cost estimate.

“Wars are expensive and taking care of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend us is a cost of war,” he said in a statement. “Congress has been discussing the serious problems at the VA for months. Strong legislation to address the emergency and take care of our veterans must be passed now. It’s time for action.”

Senate Democrats and some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), want to pay for the costs of a bill with emergency spending that would be added to the budget deficit. House Republicans want to pay for the measure with offsetting budget cuts.

Final passage of the Senate's proposal to fix the VA, cobbled together by Sanders and McCain, came after lawmakers voted 75-19 to waive a budget point of order offered by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and other Republicans, who argued the bill would add to the deficit. The Senate ultimately approved the bipartisan legislation in a 93-3 vote.

Corrected on July 11 at 2:47 p.m.: This story originally incorrectly reported the CBO had scored the House version of Veterans Affairs legislation.