Veterans bill on life support

Greg Nash

Negotiations between the House and Senate over legislation reforming the Veterans Affairs Department melted down on Thursday, raising the probability that Congress will leave for the August recess without approving a bill.

Leaders of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committees released rival proposals that illustrated the two sides are billions apart on how to fix the problems at the VA, where veterans waited hundreds of days to get appointments.

ADVERTISEMENT
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee, accused his House counterpart of not being serious about negotiations after Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) called for a meeting of House and Senate conferees.

“This is a sad indication that the House leadership is not serious about negotiations,” Sanders said. “We don’t need more speeches and posturing. We need serious negotiations — 24/7 if necessary — to resolve our differences in order to pass critical legislation.”

Most Democrats boycotted the meeting, where Miller proposed $10 billion in emergency funding to allow veterans to seek care at non-VA facilities.

“This attempt to characterize this as a unilateral move? … Whatever,” Miller told reporters after the meeting attended by 14 GOP lawmakers and one House Democrat.

Miller later sent Sanders a letter regretting that Sanders had not attended the conference meeting. 

The letter explained that members of both parties and chambers had expressed reservations about the Congressional Budget Office's scoring of a VA bill. The most recent CBO score said that the Senate bill would add $35 billion to the deficit over 10 years, a pricetag that had made talks more difficult.

Miller said his bill would at least provide a downpayment that wuold allow veterans to get care at VA facilities.

In another sign of how tensions have flared up, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) urged House and Senate lawmakers to “cool down.”

“I would hope that we could, maybe all of us,cool down some,” McCain said on the Senate floor.

Sanders unveiled his own legislation that he said would cost less than $25 billion to implement. It would allow veterans to seek care from non-VA doctors if the nearest VA facility is more than 40 miles away, or if the local VA facility cannot see them within its wait-time performance goals.

With Congress set to be in Washington for only one more week, it increasingly looks like there will be no legislation approved to help fix the VA after a major controversy erupted earlier this year when it was learned thousands of veterans were waiting months to get treatment.

The biggest fight has been over how to pay for the rival bills.

Republicans have demanded that costs be offset with other budget cuts, while Sanders had initially proposed that the bill be considered emergency spending that would be added to the deficit. Sanders this week has said he could agree to offset some of the bill’s costs.

The effort to craft a compromise bill was complicated last week when acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson announced his department would need $17.6 billion in additional funding over the next three years to meet growing patient demand.

Miller on Thursday stressed that his proposal did not contain any of the funds demanded by Gibson.

“All we wanted to do today was come together in public, make the offer, and leave,” Miller told reporters. “That’s all that would’ve happened had the Democrats come.”

It’s unclear if Miller and Sanders will even meet again this week.

Asked about it, Miller said: “I’ve got a very full schedule.”

Speaking at an afternoon press conference with other Senate Democrats, Sanders offered to stay in Washington to resolve their differences.

"So I say to Mr. Miller, trust me I would very much like to be back in Vermont this weekend, believe me I would. But I am prepared to be here this weekend, I am prepared to be here tomorrow evening to start serious negotiations."

This story was posted at 10:46 a.m. and updated at 2:51 p.m.