Lawmakers set last-ditch push to prevent veteran suicides

House and Senate lawmakers are poised to use the final days of the lame-duck session to pass a bill aimed at preventing veteran suicides.

With only days left before the 113th Congress wraps up, lawmakers are looking to fast track the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act.

The legislation, named after a young Iraq War veteran who committed suicide in 2011, calls for independent evaluations of suicide-prevention programs in the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments. The review would determine which efforts are successful or should be eliminated.

The proposed bill would create a web site detailing mental health care services, and start a pilot program to repay student loan debt for those who study psychiatric medicine and commit to working at the VA. 

The VA alone estimates that as many as 22 veterans a day die by their own hand, which would lead to more than 8,000 veteran suicides every year.

Until recently, the bill had only received a legislative hearing in the House but was not marked up. The Senate had yet to take up its version.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), an advocacy group that has labored for months to get the legislation before lawmakers and passed, turned up the pressure last week.

Its members delivered nearly 60,000 petitions to the Washington office of Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWATCH: There is no Trump-Russia collusion and the media should stop pushing this The demise of debate in Congress ‘North by Northwest,’ the Carter Page remake MORE (D-Nev.), calling on him to bring legislation to the Senate floor before Congress adjourns.

The attention seems to have paid off.

“One good piece of news, where we have strong bipartisan support, that I'm very excited about is Tim Walz's bill, the veteran's suicide prevention legislation,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday during her weekly press conference.

Walz (D-Minn.), along with House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), were leading sponsors of the bill in the lower chamber.

“It will come to the floor in a bipartisan way. Hopefully under suspension on Tuesday, is my understanding,” according to Pelosi. “And then hopefully go right through the Senate and be signed by the president in time for the holidays for our veterans.”

“As an original co-sponsor of the Clay Hunt SAV Act, I am hopeful it will receive a full House vote this Congress,” Miller said in a statement.

Walz said he was “very optimistic” the legislation “will pass early next week.”

A Senate Democratic leadership aide told The Hill the legislation is expected to pass the House next week “and will hotline it in the Senate. Hopefully there will be an agreement to pass it here.”

Other supporters, however, aren’t ready to declare victory yet.

“I'd love to see it done,” said Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrOvernight Finance: Senate rejects Trump immigration plan | U.S. Bancorp to pay 0M in fines for lacking money laundering protections | Cryptocurrency market overcharges users | Prudential fights to loosen oversight Senators introduce bill to help businesses with trade complaints Our intelligence chiefs just want to tell the truth about national security MORE (N.C.), the top Republican on the Senate Veteranss Affairs Committee. He predicted the legislation’s passage would be “immediate over here.”

“It's not a controversial bill. But bills that seem easy to pass sometimes are an attraction for other things,” Burr said, without elaborating.

“We’re certainly aware of some members and their typical problems with bills being approved” in ways like unanimous consent, said Alex Nicholson, legislative director for IAVA. “We dare anyone to try to block it.”

He said the group is focusing on conservative lawmakers such as Sens. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsUnder pressure, Trump shifts blame for Russia intrusion Overnight Tech: Judge blocks AT&T request for DOJ communications | Facebook VP apologizes for tweets about Mueller probe | Tech wants Treasury to fight EU tax proposal Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand MORE (R-Ala.) and Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnPaul Ryan should realize that federal earmarks are the currency of cronyism Republicans in Congress shouldn't try to bring back earmarks Republicans should know reviving earmarks is a political nightmare MORE (R-Okla.) to address any concerns they might have over the bill’s costs, which he said the Congressional Budget Office preliminary scored at $22 million.

An agency spokesman did not respond to a request for confirmation.

Even if the proposed bill does pass, backers on both sides of the aisle say it's only the start of addressing what they see as an epidemic of veteran suicides.

While a “major step forward … it is not a cure all,” Walz said in a statement. “Improving care for our veterans is a journey, not a destination. We must constantly be evaluating and reevaluating, and making this a priority in Congress. Passing this bill then forgetting about the problem simply isn’t an option.”

Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee 2020 Dem contenders travel to key primary states After Florida school shooting, vows for change but no clear path forward MORE (I-Vt.), the head of the Senate VA panel, called the bill a “fairly modest proposal.”

“It does not go as far as I’d like it to go,” he told The Hill. “It's something we can build on but it should not be considered an end-all.”

Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonFrustrated Republicans accuse Paul of forcing pointless shutdown Budget deal is brimming with special tax breaks House funding bill includes bipartisan Medicare reforms MORE (R-Ga.), the favorite to chair the VA panel next year, vowed to make sure lawmakers continue “addressing the soft tissue issue.” 

“It’s not going to go away just because the lame duck ends,” he said.