Senate, House Expected to Name Conferees for VA Legislation Wednesday

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 04: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a protest held by furloughed federal workers outside the U.S. Capitol to demand an end to the lockout of federal workers caused by the government shutdown October 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. Today marks the fourth day of the government shutdown as Republicans and Democrats remain at an impasse over funding the federal government. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
June 17, 2014, 12:58 p.m.

Sen­ate Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bernie Sanders made a plea Tues­day for con­tin­ued sup­port for le­gis­la­tion in­ten­ded to stop a rash of pre­vent­able deaths of vet­er­ans wait­ing for health care.

Tak­ing to the Sen­ate floor, the Ver­mont in­de­pend­ent par­roted com­ments from Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Mc­Cain earli­er in the day that if ever there was an emer­gency, the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment mess is it, and there­fore is de­serving of emer­gency funds to ad­dress it.

The House and Sen­ate have each made the is­sue a pri­or­ity and passed le­gis­la­tion last week in­ten­ded to make it easi­er to fire in­com­pet­ent lead­ers at the VA and ex­pand health care ser­vices to vets bey­ond the VA, among oth­er re­forms. The cham­bers now need to work out dif­fer­ences to get a bill to Pres­id­ent Obama and in­to law.

Sanders said he ex­pects both cham­bers to ap­point con­fer­ees Wed­nes­day to serve on a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee to ne­go­ti­ate a com­prom­ise bill and said his staff has already be­gun pre­lim­in­ary con­ver­sa­tions with staff for Re­pub­lic­an House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeff Miller.

But one wrinkle is a non­par­tis­an Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice re­port. The CBO es­tim­ated that the Sen­ate bill — which would skip budget off­set­ting, pay-as-you-go rules — could add as much as $35 bil­lion in dir­ect spend­ing over 10 years and ul­ti­mately cost the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment an ad­di­tion­al $50 bil­lion a year as vets pur­sue ad­di­tion­al health care.

The cost es­tim­ate con­trib­uted to the loss of three Re­pub­lic­an votes in the Sen­ate and is adding com­plic­a­tions to the more fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive House.

“In terms of bal­an­cing the budget, pay­ing for things, fig­ur­ing out where we’re go­ing … clearly sys­tem­ic re­form and ef­fi­ciency and ef­fect­ive­ness of op­er­a­tion is ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial,” House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er told re­port­ers Tues­day, ref­er­en­cing the CBO score.

“What has happened in the VA and the im­pact it’s had on our vet­er­ans is un­ac­cept­able, there­fore we need to solve it. But that does not mean we need to not have any con­sid­er­a­tions for fisc­al re­spons­ib­il­ity and sus­tain­ab­il­ity over time, so yeah I think that will be part of the dis­cus­sion,” he ad­ded.

Seek­ing to shore up sup­port, Sanders urged Sen­ate col­leagues to keep push­ing to en­sure re­forms make their way in­to law quickly.

“My hope is that we can get this le­gis­la­tion onto the pres­id­ent’s desk as soon as we pos­sibly can,” he said. “It is one thing to give heart­felt speeches about how much we love and re­spect vet­er­ans. It is an­oth­er thing to act, and now is the time for ac­tion.”

Elahe Izadii contributed to this article.
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