Breakthrough on VA reform bill?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) says lawmakers tasked with hammering out bipartisan legislation that would overhaul the Veterans Affairs Department have agreed that budget cuts should help fund any eventual bill.

“While the Senate voted 93-3 to pay for this bill entirely with emergency funding as a cost of war, we have agreed with the House that some offsets could be included in a final bill,” Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement late Monday without providing specifics.

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Sanders is the co-chair of the conference committee of 28 House and Senate lawmakers trying to come up with a bipartisan bill that would give the VA chief new powers to fire incompetent managers and allow veterans to seek medical care at non-VA providers in certain cases.

“In addition to providing funds for contract services in the private sector, it is imperative that the VA be able to hire the doctors and nurses and other medical personnel that are needed so that we do not have the same problems at the VA in years to come that we have today,” he said.

Sanders’s comments could start a new phase of the nearly month-old negotiations that have become mired over the bill’s potential price tag. House members want offsets, while the Senate version, which has the backing of some Republicans, depends on emergency spending.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently released an estimate that the Senate draft could add $35 billion to the deficit between 2014 and 2024.

Talks appeared to be in danger of collapsing last week, as lawmakers began publicly bickering over who was to blame for the delay. Further complicating negotiations, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson announced the agency would need nearly $18 billion in additional funds over the next three years to meet patient demand and cut down wait times.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said the new request should be part of a separate bill, while Sanders argued it should be incorporated into the compromise deal.

Despite the possible break in the logjam, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted conferees would fail to strike a bargain.

“Now, when we’re being asked to spend a few dollars to take care of these people who have come back in need, as our veterans … looks to me [like] they’re going to come back to nothing. The conference is not being completed,” Reid said in a Senate floor speech.

“Why? Because they have to spend some money on these people who they were glad to spend the money to take them to war, but now they’re back, they’re missing limbs; they’ve got lots of post-traumatic stress problems, a lot of other medical issues, and no money there,” he said.

Vice President Biden on Monday urged lawmakers to stop “fooling around” and get a bill to the president’s desk.

"It is time to get it done now," Biden said in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in St. Louis. "Stop fooling around. Get it done now."