The Politics of Process Plague Senate Vets Bill

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) talks with reporters outside the Senate chamber in the U.S. Capitol November 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 52-48 to invoke the so-called 'nuclear option', voting to change Senate rules on the controversial filibuster for most presidential nominations with a simple majority vote. 
National Journal
Michael Catalini and Stacy Kaper
Feb. 25, 2014, 4:18 p.m.

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.”

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