After pressure, talks resume on VA

Key lawmakers are back at work on a possible deal to reform the Veterans Affairs Department, just one day after the talks appeared to break down.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) told reporters on Friday he had spoken with his Senate counterpart Thursday evening and was willing to stay in Washington through the weekend to try to reach an agreement.

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“We’re working,” Miller said, referring to himself and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “I’m here if necessary.”

A spokesman for Sanders said the two lawmakers could speak again later on Friday.

The House and Senate have each passed bills to make it easier for veterans to get care from non-VA facilities, but differ over how to pay for the legislation.

The Senate’s bill could add as much as $35 billion to the deficit over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, though Sanders is working to reduce the price tag.

His latest offer would allow veterans to get care from non-VA physicians if they live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility, or if the VA cannot see them within its waiting-time requirements.

Republicans have said any bill approved by Congress should not add to the deficit and should include offsets, such as cuts in other government spending. Sanders has said he would be willing to offset some but not all of the costs.

Miller on Thursday offered $10 billion in new funding for the Veterans Affairs Department that could be used at any time over the next five years. 

Both sides are worried about being blamed if Congress does nothing to address the long waiting times veterans endure for help. Some veterans wait months for appointments, and government reports also found VA officials sought to cover up the long waits.

The controversy led to the resignation in May of former Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Erik Shinseki.

On Thursday night, 13 Republicans in the House backed a Democratic measure calling for the House negotiators to agree to the Senate’s bill.

It’s very unusual for Republicans to support a Democratic “motion to instruct” measure, and the vote highlighted GOP worries about not addressing the issue.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who serves on the House VA panel, said he voted in favor of the motion because, “I think the American public wants to see us move something forward and do it quickly before we lose any more veterans that are still out there waiting on lists.”

“We’ve got to show some leadership to actually get it done,” according to Denham, an Air Force veteran.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), another yes vote, said he was worried about public reaction if a bill isn’t agreed to before the recess.

“Yeah, I’ concerned about it,” he said. “The Senate needs to get off their butts and get to the conference and help us resolve the differences.”

Miller on Friday insisted that “things are going in the right direction,” but restated his opposition to including the VA’s request for $17.4 billion in new funding in the bill.

“We’re not going there,” he said, but then added: “I don’t intend on going home for the break without a deal.”

Miller said he read nothing into the narrow vote.

“Everybody can vote however they want,” he said. “I make the recommendation and they can vote their conscience.”