Sanders: VA overhaul to cost ‘considerably’ less

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday said that a compromise measure designed to revitalize the embattled Veterans Affairs Department would end up with a much smaller price tag than predicted.

“We’re going to go considerably lower than $35 billion,” Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, told reporters.

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Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would add $35 billion to the deficit over 10 years.

Sanders called that estimate “much, much too high and we can drive that lower,” but refused to offer specifics.

On Monday, Sanders issued a statement saying that he would be willing to accept some offsets, or budget cuts, to pay for the cost of any eventual bill, a key demand made by House Republicans serving on the legislation’s conference committee. 

Senate Democrats and some Republicans on the panel want to use emergency funding, which would add to the budget deficit.

When asked if the measure could be paid for through a mix of spending cuts and emergency funds, Sanders said it was still his “desire” to pay for any bill with emergency spending.

“On the other hand, are there areas I think we can offset without harming veterans? Yeah, I do,” he added.

When pressed on what those areas might include, Sanders replied: “I can’t negotiate through the media. That would not be a good idea.”

However, he did say that conferees are considering incorporating parts of a new $17.6 billion spending request unveiled last week by Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson.

“That’s one of the issues we’re looking at, yes,” Sanders said.

With only days left before lawmakers are due to leave for August recess, Sanders said he was working on the compromise package “as hard as I possibly can.”

“I’m willing to spend 24 hours a day working on it,” he added.

Meanwhile, pressure continues to build on negotiators to strike a deal before they leave Washington.

“Pass a bill or don’t come back from recess,” Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander William Thien said in a statement. “America’s veterans are tired of waiting — on secret waiting lists at the VA and on their elected officials to do their jobs.” 

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