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August 3, 2015

VA Bills Face Familiar Senate Gauntlet (Video)

The Senate’s efforts to address the scandal rocking the Department of Veterans Affairs could run headlong into the chamber’s usual gridlock and partisan politics.

While there has been a bipartisan clamor for action in the wake of the scandal that has already led to the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki, Democrats and Republicans are drafting separate bills and the usual Senate suspects — fights over money and amendments — could spell trouble.

A senior Democratic aide said Monday that a broad package of emergency authorizations for the VA, authored by Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders, may not reach the Senate floor for a couple of weeks, with the chamber expected to turn its attention next week to a student loan refinancing bill.

The Vermont independent’s package would authorize 27 new VA medical facilities and the hiring of doctors and nurses to reduce wait times, among numerous other steps.

Republicans led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are readying a rival bill that would focus on giving veterans waiting for care a private health care option.

The Senate could move more quickly on enhanced firing authority for senior VA personnel, but there’s an ongoing dispute over whether due process protections should be added to the bill that passed the House last month with 390 votes.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., renewed his call for quick action Monday on WFLA radio in Orlando.

“So what can we do about it? I think the most important thing we can do right now, immediately, is bring some level of accountability to the VA. Right now, the VA secretary or the new secretary, whenever we have one in place, if you identify some sort of senior executive who isn’t doing their job — say running a VA hospital — you can’t fire them. You have no power to go in and just fire them,” Rubio said.

The bill Sanders is introducing this week includes civil service protections absent from the House bill.

President Barack Obama signaled last week that fixing the immediate management concerns would be the first priority in remedying the now widely apparent deficiencies at the VA.

“Before we start spending more money, our first job is let’s take care of some basic management issues that I think can be fixed,” Obama said.

Obama did, however, indicate that he’s likely to ask Congress for more money, whether it be for doctors and nurses or other improvements to limit wait times.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday the Senate should act quickly.

“We must not allow any service member, past or present, to simply fall through the cracks,” he said on the Senate floor. “Now that the Senate has returned from its state work period, we should pass Sen. Sanders’ bill as soon as possible, ensuring that our veterans get the care they deserve.”

But Sanders won’t have the only proposal debated this week. McCain is set to lead a contingent of Republicans Tuesday in unveiling their own plan for giving veterans access to private health care options outside the VA system. Reid also highlighted provisions in the Sanders bill that would give veterans stuck on wait lists and mired in the claims backlog access to private hospitals, military care and community health centers.

Reid sought to put Republicans on defense as skinflints. When the Nevada Democrat opened the floor after the weeklong Memorial Day recess, he recalled how Republicans derailed an earlier veterans health overhaul introduced by Sanders.

That bill fell apart on a budget point of order for busting budget caps. The primary offset would have been claimed savings from winding down the war in Afghanistan.

“Taking care of our nation’s wounded veterans does cost money, but it’s money well spent,” Reid said, likely setting up a debate over offsets.

“Republicans didn’t worry about busting the budget when they initially sent our troops, by the hundreds of thousands, to Iraq on a credit card,” he continued. “Republicans ignore the true cost of democracy. The lives and well-being of the brave men and women who fight to protect our way of life is part of the cost of our democracy.

“Instead, Republicans focus on the monetary cost only, the dollar bills, because any money going to our veterans is one less dollar going to billionaires and corporations in unnecessary tax cuts,” he added, reprising a familiar refrain.

Another opportunity for the Senate to debate veterans’ health care policy could come in June, when it could debate the Military Construction-VA appropriations bill.

Under one plan under consideration, individual spending bills could be packaged together into “minibus” measures. The Senate Appropriations Committee is likely to have provided leadership with six bills to pick from by the time spending bill season arrives on the floor.

Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

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