On Veterans Affairs Fix, a Rare United Front for House and Senate

Both chambers are voting on different bills this week, but members believe they can reach an agreement for a fast, bipartisan victory.

Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) listens during an event on Capitol Hill April 3, 2014 in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
June 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

More than a month after the scan­dal at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment broke, the House and Sen­ate seem to be mov­ing in dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions to solve it, each bring­ing up its own pieces of le­gis­la­tion this week.

But those dif­fer­ences are small and will be re­solved without much delay, both sides say, hint­ing at the po­ten­tial for a quick, bi­par­tis­an solu­tion to a ma­jor na­tion­al prob­lem — something rarely seen in re­cent Con­gresses.

The House on Tues­day passed its third bill aimed at fix­ing prob­lems at the VA in as many weeks. The most re­cent meas­ure, and most com­pre­hens­ive bill so far, was sponsored by House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeff Miller of Flor­ida and passed 426-0, al­beit after a minor vot­ing mis­hap.

Mean­while, the Sen­ate is fo­cused on bring­ing up its own le­gis­la­tion, pro­posed by Sen­ate Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bernie Sanders, that rep­res­ents a com­prom­ise with Sen. John Mc­Cain and oth­er Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers. That vote, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id said Tues­day, will likely come on Wed­nes­day or Thursday.

In an un­usu­al move, Re­id has said that he is open to look­ing at amend­ments — even from Re­pub­lic­ans — that are ger­mane to the le­gis­la­tion. That might not sound like much of a con­ces­sion, but giv­en that Re­id has blocked Re­pub­lic­an amend­ments more than twice as of­ten as every pre­vi­ous ma­jor­ity lead­er com­bined, it cer­tainly rep­res­ents a sig­ni­fic­ant shift.

The change in tone from the Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er’s of­fice is due to the sig­ni­fic­ance of the is­sue. Where­as with oth­er le­gis­la­tion, mem­bers of the minor­ity have tried to at­tach amend­ments that would ef­fect­ively kill the un­der­ly­ing bill, no one is talk­ing about do­ing that with the VA fix, at least at the mo­ment. And it wouldn’t be polit­ic­ally wise to do any­thing that would stand in the way of a solu­tion. The Sen­ate, like the House, is ex­pec­ted to pass its VA bill with ease this week.

Not all is com­pletely re­con­ciled between the cham­bers, however. Lead­ers, in­clud­ing Sanders and Miller, also said Tues­day that they had not read the oth­er cham­ber’s le­gis­la­tion. Spokes­men for Re­id and House Speak­er John Boehner de­clined to say wheth­er they would bring the oth­er cham­ber’s bill to the floor or com­ment on it un­til the oth­er cham­ber passes it.

And there are dif­fer­ences between the bills. The House le­gis­la­tion would al­low vet­er­ans to vis­it a non-VA fa­cil­ity if they are on a wait-list for more than 30 days, while the Sen­ate bill would not. Both meas­ures do al­low vet­er­ans to go out­side the sys­tem for care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA fa­cil­ity. The Sen­ate bill also provides mil­lions of dol­lars in new fund­ing to build ad­di­tion­al VA hos­pit­als and hire more doc­tors that is not in­cluded in the House pro­vi­sion. And the House le­gis­la­tion calls for an in­de­pend­ent in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to is­sues at the VA.

But these is­sues won’t hold up a le­gis­lat­ive fix for long, mem­bers on both sides say. Lead­ers in both cham­bers ex­pect to re­con­cile the bills quickly and send them to Pres­id­ent Obama’s desk.

On the Sen­ate side, mem­bers and aides in­volved in the is­sue feel that the bills are in the “same ball­park,” a spokes­man for Re­id (a base­ball fan) said Tues­day.

Miller, who hadn’t seen the Sen­ate bill but was in­volved in the ne­go­ti­ations on that side of the Cap­it­ol dur­ing last week’s House re­cess, was sim­il­arly op­tim­ist­ic. “I think the House is will­ing to look at any­thing that the Sen­ate brings for­ward. That’s the way the pro­cess is sup­posed to work around here. Both Houses, you know, come for­ward with the le­gis­la­tion that they think would solve the is­sue. Then it’s im­port­ant for us to come for­ward and re­con­cile as quickly as we can,” he said Monday.

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