Legislation to help veterans often wins bipartisan support, but a rift between Senate Democrats and Republicans over process — who gets to offer amendments and how many — is threatening an omnibus bill moving through the chamber.
Senate Republicans are emerging as skeptics of a Democratic bill sponsored by Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont, arguing that an increasingly familiar script that has killed other bills may well repeat itself here.
Republican lawmakers describe a pattern in which Majority Leader Harry Reid brings Democratic legislation to the floor and blocks the minority from offering amendments, and in response they block the measure from advancing to a simple-majority vote. The process has thus far stalled an extension of unemployment insurance.
"It's pretty simple," said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. "We don't understand why the Senate shouldn't function as it historically has functioned. The right of a single senator to offer amendments is pretty important. It's a matter of principle as much as it is about any of the specific pieces of legislation."
The Senate voted Tuesday to proceed to the Sanders bill, which would reverse an unpopular cut to veterans' pensions that was enacted as part of the budget deal, as well as expand veterans' education and health care benefits.
Republicans are wary of Sanders's plan to expand benefits, and they're furious over what they say is strong-arming by Reid.
"If Senator Reid were willing to run a legislative process, I think you can move bills," said Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who sits on the Veterans' Affairs Committee. "It's like this unemployment [legislation]. I always thought the votes were there. I just never could understand why he didn't let the process go forward."
Republicans blame election-year politics.
Grassley said Reid may be limiting amendments to protect vulnerable Democrats.
"This I can't answer, it's just a supposition, but to what extent does Senator Reid not want the senate to function because he wants to protect his majority?" Grassley said.
For his part, Reid has said that he will green-light GOP amendments that are related to the veterans bill, but at the same time made it clear that he will draw a line beyond which Republicans cannot cross. Exactly where that line is set remains to be seen.
"This doesn't mean that we'll go on forever," Reid said.
Though 99 senators got on board for Tuesday's vote to move the measure a small step forward, it's unclear whether that support will continue on future, more substantive votes to pass the bill.
One of the Republican amendments is a plan to replace the measure with an alternative from Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Veterans' Affairs panel's top Republican.
The GOP plan would change how to pay for the expanded spending, which under the Sanders bill relies on savings from the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans say those savings are "false," arguing they don't actually save taxpayers money. Instead, Republicans want to pay for it by targeting a child tax credit used by undocumented immigrants.
If Republicans don't get to vote on their amendments, and if its spending offset isn't changed, they're threatening to block the measure — even if that position leaves them at odds with most veterans groups.
"It would be very difficult for people to vote against a veterans bill," said Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. "But if they do it with the [war-drawdown funding] offset there might be some of us who vote against it, and I might be one of them."
Sen. John McCain took offense at the fact that Republicans were being blocked from amending such a massive bill for such a vital group. "I think I know as much about veterans as Mr. Sanders, with all due respect, yet I'm not allowed a single amendment to Mr. Sanders's bill; that to me is an outrage and an insult," he said.
Another Republican amendment would call for Iran sanctions, a sensitive area dividing some Democrats and the White House, which wants to see its diplomatic approach proceed.
Burr said that he could not abide a Democratic request that only amendments pertaining to veterans issues be offered.
"The chair made a plea that this be limited to VA issues," Burr said. "That might be possible if the minority had the opportunity to amend legislation in this institution. It's the only way we can get this to the floor because we're denied any other attempt to do it."