Veterans bill on pathway for passage

A $17 billion bill to revamp the Veterans Affairs Department appears likely to clear both the House and Senate this week.

While a handful of Republicans in both chambers have raised objections, lawmakers said the legislation is on a path for passage despite the fact that it would add $12 billion to the deficit.

“I’m sure there are going to be some that are going to oppose it because it’s not totally offset. That’s their prerogative,” said Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the top Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “The bill’s going to pass in the House. The bill’s going to pass in the Senate.”

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) predicted a majority of his conference will support the bill when it comes up for a vote on Wednesday.

His Senate counterpart, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the upper chamber could vote on the legislation as soon as Wednesday but that Thursday was more likely.

Heritage Action put out a statement criticizing the bill, but a spokesman said it was unclear if the group would include the vote on its legislative scorecard. The Club for Growth did not put out a statement on the bill.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said he would vote no.

“I’m not going to support it,” the deficit hawk told The Hill. He said the problem isn’t the money, but that VA physicians see about half the number of patients on a daily basis as those in private practice.

“It’s about utilization of resources and management,” he said.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), one of three GOP lawmakers who voted against the VA overhaul when it came up in the Senate last month, said he “can’t imagine the bill’s been constructed in such a way that I can support it.”

He said he was worried a provision in the bill that allows veterans the choice of getting private care in certain situations, which is supposed to sunset after three years, would instead “go on forever.”

That would mean a “massive amount of money down the road,” he said.

Still, many lawmakers are likely to be reluctant to oppose any bill granting healthcare to veterans.

The bill includes $10 billion to allow veterans to get private care and another $5 billion for the department to hire additional medical staff.

Corker and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said the bill should be scored by the Congressional Budget Office before Senators vote.

“It’s bad policy for this Congress to jam bills through with serious budget problems without opportunity for the member to fully understand what’s at stake,” Sessions said.

But he declined to say whether he would vote against the bill on the Senate floor.

Other Republicans who have criticized the VA healthcare system in the past indicated they would support the measure.

“There are some things I probably don’t like, but what I like about is it will give veterans an option,” said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.).

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the spending was justified to help veterans.

“They can make their own defense, and I won’t try to defend it or speak for them,” he said of opponents. “If veterans dying is not an emergency and a rationale for emergency spending then I don’t know what emergency spending is.”

This story was updated at 7:01 p.m.