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.

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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 ReidVirginia was a wave election, but without real change, the tide will turn again Top Lobbyists 2017: Grass roots Boehner confronted Reid after criticism from Senate floor 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 Energy: Chemical safety regulator's nomination at risk | Watchdog scolds Zinke on travel records | Keystone pipeline spills 210,000 gallons of oil Overnight Regulation: Senators unveil bipartisan gun background check bill | FCC rolls back media regs | Family leave credit added to tax bill | Senate confirms banking watchdog Collins ‘leaning against’ Trump EPA chemical nominee 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 SessionsFederal judge rules Trump defunding sanctuary cities 'unconstitutional on its face' FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Alabama election has GOP racing against the clock MORE (R-Ala.) and Tom CoburnTom CoburnFormer GOP senator: Trump has a personality disorder Lobbying World -trillion debt puts US fiscal house on very shaky ground 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) SandersDe Blasio headed to Iowa to speak at political fundraiser Yes, spills happen — but pipelines are still the safest way to move oil Why sexual harassment discussions include lawmakers talking about Bill Clinton’s past 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 IsaksonQuestions loom over Franken ethics probe Senate ethics panel resumes Menendez probe after judge declares mistrial Signs of progress, challenges in fighting Alzheimer's 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.