Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will try to push forward on a wide-ranging veterans' bill once Congress returns later this month.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont, previously said his legislation could be taken up on Feb. 6, but it got waylaid by a pair of proposals that sought to reverse the roughly $6 billion in cuts to veteran pensions included in the December budget agreement.
After a nearly two-month squabble over how to pay for the pension funding, the Senate passed a bill Wednesday that reverses the 1 percent cut to working-age retirees' cost-of-living adjustment by extending the sequester on Medicare spending by a year.
Sanders's legislation also reverses the COLA cuts and tackles a swath of veterans issues, including health care, education, and employment. Whether the legislation will move forward with the pension provision intact is unclear. A staffer suggested that if the Senate passed other COLA legislation, the Sanders proposal could be amended and the provision removed, or the Senate could pass it as is.
Either way, Sanders is expected to receive pushback on his legislation from Senate Republicans, and the measure would face an uphill—if not virtually impossible—battle in the House. Republicans in both chambers are objecting to Sanders's use of Overseas Contingency Operations funds to pay for a large chunk of the bill—which is expected to cost $24 billion.
OCO funds have been used to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Republicans argue that with most, if not all, U.S. troops expected out of Afghanistan by the end of this year, the OCO funds—which aren't subject to congressional budget caps—aren't a reliable source of funding for veterans.
The Senate is expected to reconvene on Feb. 24, but it's likely the vote to end debate on Sanders's legislation won't be taken up until later in the week. Senators first have to deal with a handful of nominations, a process that could be drawn out if the full debate time is used.
This article appears in the February 14, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.