House and Senate negotiators are unveiling a nearly $17 billion bill aimed at addressing the problems surrounding the treatment of veterans in government-run hospitals.
Veterans Affairs' Committee chairmen Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida announced the outline of their conference-committee report, which is expected to clear Congress and head to the president's desk before the August recess begins Monday. Miller said he expects a House vote Wednesday and passage with support from "a majority of the majority."
The announcement comes after tense moments last week when Miller held a public hearing that Senate Democrats decried as one-sided and political. Both Miller and Sanders, though, maintained that the media hyped the bad blood and that their talks continued behind the scenes.
The biggest hurdle the bill would likely face is clearing the House, which has resisted passing budget-busting legislation. This bill includes $5 billion in offsets, Sanders said, but also includes $10 billion in emergency mandatory spending.
Asked whether he could persuade his House Republican colleagues to back the bill, Miller said he had been in sales before he came to Congress and that he was confident in his abilities to sell the compromise. Asked if he would explain how he could do that, Miller said flatly, "No."
"As we go through the process there will be an education process that will have to take place," Miller said. "Obviously some of our members will need a little more educating than others."
The bill appropriates $10 billion aimed at letting veterans who face a wait for medical care to seek assistance in the private sector. The measure would also let veterans who live more than 40 miles from a veterans facility to seek care in the private sector.
It also includes provisions that would make it easier for VA officials to fire employees. Miller pointed to this provision as an area where he and Sanders, who advocated for an appeals process, had to compromise.
Miller said he expects the conference committee to complete its work Monday and that the House would likely vote first on the legislation. A Senate Democratic aide said the Senate would likely vote in the latter half of the week.
The announcement of the deal comes as both chambers are preparing to leave town for their states and districts for a five-week-long recess. It also comes with the midterm election looming large for lawmakers, who want to avoid breaking without passing a bill aimed at helping veterans.
"Funding for veterans' needs must be considered a cost of war," Sanders said.
Sanders and Miller delivered the deal despite their politically opposite profiles. Sanders, a socialist from Vermont, and Miller, a former businessman and conservative from northwest Florida, at times looked tense presenting the legislation.
It was Sanders, though, who talked about just how dysfunctional and partisan Congress has become.
"It is compromise legislation," he said, noting that it was very difficult to reach a deal. "There's been give and take on both sides."