By Martin Matishak - 07/23/14 04:55 PM EDT
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Wednesday warned House and Senate lawmakers might not reach a deal on legislation to reform the Veterans Affairs Department before the August recess.
“Clearly we’re running out of space here,” Sanders, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, told reporters. “If there’s a will, yes, we can do it. If there’s not a will, no, we will fail.”
Sanders blasted the partisanship that has paralyzed Washington, labeling Congress a “dysfunctional institution.”
“That is a bloody tragedy,” he told reporters. “But I hope at least that on this issue where I think … all members are sincere about making sure that people who put their lives on the line to defend us get the care that they need. I would hope we could overcome that partisanship and do this.”
The monthlong negotiations among 28 House and Senate lawmakers have stalled over how to pay for a compromise bill. House Republicans want to offset any costs with budget cuts, while senators believe it should be paid for with emergency spending that would add to the federal deficit.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated the Senate’s bill would add $35 billion to the deficit over 10 years.
The effort to craft a compromise bill suffered another setback last week when Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said his department would need $17.6 billion in additional funding over the next three years to meet growing patient demand.
Sanders has called for including those additional funds in the compromise bill, but fiscally conservative House members have expressed doubts about giving the troubled VA more money.
The chairman said lawmakers could bring the $17.6 billion figure down, noting that “the VA can’t spend all of that money in the first year or the second year” of a bill.
In addition, even if the newly unveiled request is added to the CBO score, he predicted the final measure would still be “significantly lower” than the $35 billion estimate.
“Nobody gets what they want,” Sanders said. “So VA isn’t going to get every nickel it wants.
He said lawmakers could still produce a “strong bill” that includes “emergency contracting" care to allow veterans who have experienced long VA wait times to get treatment elsewhere.
A bill could also include a GOP proposal that allows veterans to seek care from non-VA doctors if wait times are excessive or the nearest facility is more than 40 miles away, he said.
Sanders cited a letter from a coalition of veterans groups that urged negotiators to “expeditiously approve supplemental funding that fully addresses the critical needs outlined” by Gibson and any price tag associated with the bipartisan bill.
“The problem that we have in a dysfunctional institution is that you do not get the time you need to address issues,” Sanders told reporters. “This is the moment where we’re going to have to address, in a very serious way, the needs of our veterans.”