Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
July 29, 2014

July 29, 2014

Robert McDonald Confirmed as VA Secretary

The Senate confirmed former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the new secretary of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday, with a $17 billion deal to slash VA wait times expected to pass later this week.

The 97-0 vote reflected broad bipartisan support for McDonald’s pick. Republicans including Speaker John A. Boehner and Rob Portman, both from McDonald’s native Ohio, immediately backed McDonald, who support Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

Related:

Bernie Sanders’ New Title: Dealmaker

Robert McDonald Pick Stems the Bleeding in VA Health Scandal

July 28, 2014

Bernie Sanders’ New Title: Dealmaker

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Sanders and Miller hold a news conference announcing the VA deal Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Bernard Sanders didn’t seem a likely suspect to bridge Washington’s toxic partisan divide and cut one of the most significant deals in years.

But the Senate’s lone socialist and a potential 2016 presidential candidate did just that — negotiating a deal over the weekend to tackle wait times at the Department of Veterans Affairs and clear his biggest legislative test since he took over the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee gavel last year.

The Vermont independent’s compromise with House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., would provide $17 billion to the agency with $5 billion offset with savings and fees elsewhere. In a brief interview after a Monday news conference announcing the deal, Sanders reflected on the difficulty of the deal.

“I learned that it’s very, very, very hard; that there are a lot of moving parts; that there a lot of people you have to pay attention to,” he said. “In this case with the VA, the administration, the Democrats, with Republicans and a whole lot of individuals within those entities. It’s tough stuff.”

So often, Sanders has been on the outside looking in, railing against the powers that be — like when he gave an eight-and-a-half hour speech on the Senate floor in 2010 torching the extension of tax cuts as “Robin Hood in reverse.” The speech, which generated widespread attention and is also known as the “filiBernie,” was published as a book in 2011.

But Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist and caucuses with the Democratic Party, said he wants to legislate, not just pontificate. He attributes his negotiating skills to his time as the first socialist mayor of Burlington, Vt.

“When I took office, people who supported me on the city council, we had two out of 13 and I had to make things happen while being in the minority, so I do know how to negotiate fairly,” Sanders said. “Negotiation is part of the political process. I certainly have been prepared to do that since day one.”

Asked how he balances his progressive views with his role as a legislator, Sanders said there is no recipe. “I do the best I can,” he said.

With regard to the VA, Sanders pushed hard for expanding the agency’s own facilities — and wanted to ensure that veterans weren’t used as pawns in the ongoing spending fight between the parties.

“By which I mean [Republicans would say], ‘Yeah, we will fund veterans health care, but we will cut Head Start or education,” Sanders said. “That I did not want to see, and that did not happen.’”

Sanders repeatedly said he believes that most Americans think taking care of veterans is part of the cost of war. And he had an advantage, given that failure to act would have been bad politically for both parties.

During the news conference, Sanders was quick to note how rare a deal — any deal — is in Washington.

“The United States Congress today, in my view, is a dysfunctional institution,” he said. “There is major issue after major issue where virtually nothing is happening.

“The important point is we are here together having done something that happens quite rarely in the United States Congress,” Sanders said. “I am proud of what we have accomplished.”

The deal is one of the biggest expansions of government since the GOP takeover of the House, with $10 billion to launch a program to allow veterans to seek private medical care if they have unreasonable wait times or if they live more than 40 miles from a facility.

The compromise also includes $5 billion for additional doctors, nurses and upgrades to facilities, although not nearly as much as Sanders wanted.

“I think we are [to] going have to be back discussing these very same issues sooner than I would liked to have seen,” he said.

But the deal also included funding to extend a scholarship to include surviving spouses of members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty, a bipartisan provision to let all veterans qualify for in-state tuition under the Post-9/11 GI bill, and language that extends an about-to-expire program that provides housing for veterans who are struggling with traumatic brain injuries.

Sanders and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-sponsored a veterans measure that passed the Senate last month, heaped praise on each other.

“John and I see the world very, very differently,” Sanders said. “But John made it clear that it was vitally important that this legislation be passed; that it would be an obscenity if it were not passed by the time we got out of here for recess.”

McCain reciprocated in a statement of his own, saying Sanders’ “tenacity and passion on behalf of America’s veterans cannot be questioned.”

The deal nearly didn’t happen, after talks collapsed last week over Republican objections to adding funds funds for doctors, nurses and facility improvements.

Miller, who had acting VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson before his panel on July 24, had argued it made no sense to provide the agency funding for that purpose because it already had job openings that it couldn’t fill.

Miller offered Sanders $10 billion for veterans to seek private care, as well as for leases and authorization for 27 new major VA medical facilities. But Sanders rebuffed the offer and rejected calls from Miller to convene the conference.

Sanders and Miller agreed to restart talks over the weekend.

Asked late last week what it was like negotiating with the Senate’s foremost liberal, a visibly frustrated Miller said jokingly, and somewhat angrily: “Wonderful.”

But jokes aside, Miller said there is no personal animus between the two.

At the news conference Monday, Miller warmly thanked Sanders for “working in good faith throughout the entire process.”

“Sen. Sanders and I differ about certain things, but one thing we do agree about is that the veterans of this country deserve the best quality health care that they can get in a timely fashion,” Miller said.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this article.

As Ted Cruz Lifts Hold, Diplomats Have a Chance at Confirmation (Video)

judiciary007 052114 445x291 As Ted Cruz Lifts Hold, Diplomats Have a Chance at Confirmation (Video)

( Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

There’s a chance at least some of the ambassadors caught in a legislative holding pattern might be confirmed before the August recess.

While the process of filling the diplomatic corps has been slow in the aftermath of the “nuclear option” standoff last fall, Sen. Ted Cruz said Monday that he had withdrawn his more recent objection.

The Texas Republican had placed a hold on State Department nominees — a move with limited utility in the post-nuclear Senate where Democrats can break filibusters without any GOP votes. Cruz had placed the hold because of last week’s brief Federal Aviation Administration ban on flights by U.S. carriers to Tel Aviv, Israel.

Full story

Reid Open to Separate Funding for Israel, Wildfires and Border in Pre-Recess Rush

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The pre-recess rush began Monday with a plea from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“Leaving here with Israel being naked as they are, with these wildfires raging and a crisis at the border, it would be a shame if we did nothing,” the Nevada Democrat said on the Senate floor.

Those three priority items would get emergency funding under a measure introduced last week by Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.

Full story

July 27, 2014

VA Health Care Deal Reached; Miller, Sanders Plan to Announce Monday (Updated)

sanders 027 040913 445x296 VA Health Care Deal Reached; Miller, Sanders Plan to Announce Monday (Updated)

Sanders (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 9:39 p.m. | A $15 billion VA health care deal has been reached after a weekend of negotiating to resolve differences between the House and Senate.

House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., are planning to outline their agreement on a measure that would overhaul veterans health programs on Monday, aides said Sunday. The two lawmakers have scheduled a news conference for 1:30 p.m. Monday.

According to a summary of the agreement obtained by CQ Roll Call, the negotiators agreed to $15 billion in emergency mandatory spending — $10 billion for a new private care option for veterans and another $5 billion for improvements within the VA, like hiring doctors and nurses and upgrading facilities. That’s $5 billion more than Miller offered on Thursday and about $10 billion less than Sanders sought.

To qualify for the private care option, veterans would have to be experiencing long wait times or be located more than 40 miles from a VA facility. They would be able to access providers who already participate in Medicare.

The news comes as the Senate is also on track to confirm former Proctor & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the nation’s next secretary of Veterans Affairs before departing for the August break. Full story

July 25, 2014

Walsh on Plagiarism: ‘I Made a Mistake’ But Not Due to PTSD

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( Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. John Walsh said he “made a mistake” when he plagiarized portions of his Masters’ thesis and dismissed possible affects of post-traumatic stress disorder possibly playing a role.

“I was going to the United States Army War College, I had to write a strategic research paper and I made a mistake,” the Montana Democrat said Friday on KMMS AM Radio in Bozeman, Mont.

“It was an unintentional mistake when I put the paper together,” Walsh said. “It was a 14-page paper. There were 96 citations that I identified in the paper. Some of those citations were identified incorrectly and some of the comments that I left in the paper I did not put a citation against. So I made a mistake on my paper. It was an unintentional mistake.” Full story

By Humberto Sanchez Posted at 4:57 p.m.
Politics

Wyden Ponders Release of CIA Torture Report Without White House Consent

wyden 214 062414 445x303 Wyden Ponders Release of CIA Torture Report Without White House Consent

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A senior Senate Democrat is firing a warning shot at the White House against stalling the release of a report about the past use of torture by the U.S. intelligence community.

Sen. Ron Wyden is talking with his colleagues about the possibility of using a seldom-invoked procedure to declassify an Intelligence Committee report on the use of torture in the event the White House does not move ahead quickly.

Speaking with reporters on a variety of subjects Thursday, the Oregon Democrat referred to the Senate’s “Resolution 400″ — the Abraham A. Ribicoff-sponsored resolution that established the Intelligence Committee back in 1976.

Wyden said he was discussing invoking the resolution “in order to move this along if we have to, through the committee process, to get it declassified.”

Full story

July 24, 2014

McConnell Seeks to Break Out Funding for Israel’s Iron Dome From Border Bill

mcconnell 016 040114 445x312 McConnell Seeks to Break Out Funding for Israels Iron Dome From Border Bill

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is introducing standalone legislation to provide funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.

The Kentucky Republican’s bill would meet a supplemental funding request from the Pentagon for $225 million for the program. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., included the funding in her much broader supplemental that would primarily address the crisis of unaccompanied migrant children entering the United States from Central America — but Republicans are balking at that $3.6 billion bill.

“Republicans are united in support of our ally Israel. We have legislation that would allow Congress to meet the Secretary’s request. And we hope our friends on the other side will join us in coming to a sensible, bipartisan solution that can be passed quickly,” McConnell said in a floor speech. “As most senators know, the Iron Dome missile defense system has played a critical role in defending Israel’s population from the rocket attacks launched by Hamas from within the Gaza Strip.

“By passing a bipartisan measure to meet the secretary’s request, we can send a message to Hamas that its terrorist tactics and its attempts to terrorize Israel’s populace will not succeed,” he said.

Republicans aren’t happy that Mikulski’s bill would not make changes to a 2008 anti-trafficking law. The two parties remain far apart on the best way to address the immigration crisis. McConnell’s move allows Republicans to demonstrate that they are supportive of the requested funds for defense of Israel even if they oppose the broader package.

But it likely does not speak well to the prospects that the two sides will reach a deal.

VA Talks Collapse (Updated) (Video)

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Sanders (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 1:08 p.m.  | Talks on a fix for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care crisis have collapsed, after the lead Senate Democratic negotiator accused the top House GOP negotiator of a “take-it-or-leave-it gambit.”

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has signaled he has abandoned talks after calling a noon meeting of the conference committee in an effort to ram a GOP plan through.

Sanders told CQ Roll Call he did not plan to attend the noon conference meeting called by Miller.

“It’s not a conference. A conference is when two sides agree to meet. This was decided at 10 last night by the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs,” Sanders said, adding he would be prepared to talk with Miller over the weekend.

After Sanders and Senate Democrats opted not to go, Boehner sent out a statement blasting them.

“In the wake of the shocking scandal at the Veterans Administration, the House passed a bipartisan VA reform and accountability bill, and we’re ready to complete work on an agreement the president can sign. Unfortunately, Senate Democrats refused to even show up and discuss bipartisan solutions, preferring instead to talk behind closed doors. That is shameful. If President Obama cares about America’s veterans, he needs to pick up his phone out in California and tell Senate Democrats to get to work.”

Sanders blasted the move in an earlier statement of his own.

“Instead of working constructively toward a compromise, Miller unilaterally called a ‘conference committee meeting’ to unveil his take-it-or-leave-it gambit,” Sanders said in the release. “This is a sad indication that the House leadership is not serious about negotiations.  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.”

On the Senate floor, Sanders said Miller’s move was a low point in the talks.

“This is a proposal that nobody on our side has seen,” Sanders said. “My understanding is that he then wants to take this to the House on Monday and [hold] a vote.”

“Any sixth grader in a school in the United States understands that this is not negotiation, this is not what democracy is about,” Sanders continued.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has also been involved in the talks, agreed that negotiations are in a difficult period, but suggested Sanders go to the noon meeting prepared to negotiate in calm fashion.

“I hope we could go to this conference at noon today and listen to the various proposals,” McCain said in an effort to save the talks.

Sanders asked McCain to sit down with Miller and the ranking members to work out a deal.

“I’d be more than glad to do that,” McCain said, adding he hoped agreement could be reached Thursday.

Durbin Puts His Mark on Defense Bill

durbin003 061714 445x299 Durbin Puts His Mark on Defense Bill

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Waging war on smoking, for-profit colleges and tax loopholes may sound like odd subjects for the military spending bill, but not when you consider who is wielding the gavel.

In an era without earmarks, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin has used his perch atop the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to put his stamp on several of his priorities, like increasing the accountability of for-profit schools getting federal tuition dollars through the Pentagon.

“If you’ve been bored and watched C-SPAN, you’ve probably heard me on the floor talk about this a couple times. This is serious,” the Illinois Democrat said at last week’s Appropriations Committee markup. “Corinthian Colleges is about to fail and go bankrupt. It’s going to cost the United States over a billion dollars when this for-profit school goes under.”

Full story

July 23, 2014

Cruz Threatens to Delay State Department Nominees Over FAA’s Israel Flight Ban

gop sens005 101613 445x287 Cruz Threatens to Delay State Department Nominees Over FAAs Israel Flight Ban

(Tom William/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Ted Cruz announced late Wednesday that he would hold up State Department nominees over a moratorium on U.S. flight traffic to Tel Aviv.

As a practical matter, the move by the Texas Republican may not mean much, since a slew of ambassador nominees are already tied up in an existing logjam. Secretary of State John Kerry has been working the phones in an attempt to get diplomats through to confirmation.

Full story

Sessions: ‘Colossal Error’ to Pass Immigration Spending Without Blocking ‘Administrative Amnesty’

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Jeff Sessions says it would be “institutional surrender” for the House to advance an immigration spending bill without preventing President Barack Obama from expanding “administrative amnesty” for millions of additional unauthorized immigrants.

The Alabama Republican made that case in a lengthy statement circulated Wednesday afternoon, and he expanded on those views in a brief conversation with CQ Roll Call.

“I think it would be a colossal error to pass any kind of legislation that does not prohibit the president from granting legal status to five or six million people, as he’s indicated he intends to do,” Sessions said. “I’m baffled that the House talking points didn’t deal with that … The House principles didn’t address President Obama’s failure to execute the laws and expressed no concern about that danger.”

Full story

Sanders Says Money Still Stalling VA Conference

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Sanders (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A congressional fix for the veterans health care crisis remains stalled over the pricetag.

Sen. Bernard Sanders on the Senate floor and later in a gaggle with reporters Wednesday said that a spat over a request for supplemental Veterans Affairs Department funding is among the disagreements in a House-Senate conference.

The independent from Vermont who serves as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said he believes at least some supplemental funding is needed for the VA, as requested by acting secretary Sloan Gibson.

The two sides are closer on paying for access to private care for veterans stuck on long waiting lists than they are on beefing up the VA’s own services.

“We must make sure that the VA has the doctors, the nurses, the medical personnel, the IT and the space they need in order to deal with this crisis, so that two years from now we’re not back in the same position that we are,” Sanders said.

“I think we can lower that amount of money,” from the $17.6 billion requested for those purposes, Sanders said. “Because some of that money is not going to be spent this year or even next year, but the issue here is that we have got to strengthen the VA, their capacity, so that veterans do not remain on long waiting periods, and that we can get them the quality and timely care they need.”

Sanders said there was general agreement that veterans facing claims backlogs need access to private care.

“That is what we’ve got to do because it is unacceptable that veterans remain on long wait lines, waiting periods and not get health care. There is a general agreement on that,” Sanders said. “I think we can reach some resolution on that.”

While Sanders would prefer to pass a bill with no offsets, he said he is “willing to concede that there can be some offsets, which I think will not hurt the veterans community.”

He called his counterpart, House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., “a serious man.”

“I think he wants to get a bill passed,” Sanders said.

“I hope, at least, that on this issue — we could overcome that partisanship and do this,” Sanders added later.

“It really would be a disgrace if Congress left for the August break without passing the veterans’ bill,” he said.

Sanders also quoted from a statement issued earlier this week by Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander William A. Thien.

“Pass a bill or don’t come back from recess … America’s veterans are tired of waiting — on secret waiting lists at the VA and on their elected officials to do their jobs,” Thien said. “If Congress goes on recess without passing this legislation, the VFW will work hard with all veterans and the American public to hold every member of Congress fully accountable for failing America’s veterans.”

Sanders highlighted a letter from 16 veterans’ service organizations to the leaders of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committees. That letter backs Gibson’s call for supplemental funding.

“Taking into account the progress achieved by VA over the past two months, and considering the funding shortfalls our organizations have identified over the past decade and in next year’s budget, the undersigned believe that Congress must quickly approve supplemental funding that fully meets the critical needs identified by Secretary Gibson, and which fulfills the principles and priorities we laid out a month ago,” the letter said. “Such an approach would be a reasonable and practical way to expand access now, while building internal capacity to avoid future access crises in the future.”

Bob Dole, Veterans Groups Push Disabilities Treaty

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Former Senate Majority Leader Dole, R-Kan., speaks with Sen. Ayotte, R-N.H., after a news conference urging the Senate to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Despite remaining short of the 67 votes needed to ratify the United Nation’s disability treaty, disabled veterans groups are pushing for a vote to identify the holdouts.

Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., at a press conference urging ratification, said the treaty is a no-brainer to help veterans.

“I just hope the Republicans will take another look and support this treaty,” Dole said.

“This is a common sense thing … so … the people in wheelchairs can have the same rights when they travel overseas as able-bodied persons.” Full story

By Humberto Sanchez Posted at 2:33 p.m.
John McCain

Internet Sales Tax Bill Dealt a Blow; Wyden Cheers

wyden 009 040114 445x308 Internet Sales Tax Bill Dealt a Blow; Wyden Cheers

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Majority Leader Harry Reid is quietly stepping back from his intention to bundle an Internet tax moratorium with a more contentious proposal to allow states to collect online sales taxes, at least for now.

The Nevada Democrat had said July 16, “I think it’s fair to say the two are going to be together.” The move, backed by Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., would have constituted a run around Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who opposes the legislation known as the Marketplace Fairness Act.

But, CQ Roll Call’s Alan K. Ota reported that as of Tuesday, the plan had changed:

Full story

By Niels Lesniewski Posted at 12:27 p.m.
Ron Wyden, Taxes

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