Republicans scuttled a $21 billion veterans’ package in the Senate on Thursday, but have agreed to allow competing military sexual-assault bills to move to the floor for votes.
The veterans’ bill from Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, went down on a procedural vote 56-41 because Republicans, denied the ability to offer amendments, withheld the votes needed to get it to the floor.
Meanwhile, long-stalled votes on competing military sexual-assault legislation offered by Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri are finally expected to advance.
After Republicans objected to moving forward with the bills earlier in the week, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell struck a deal late Wednesday to expedite debate and allow the measures to proceed as early as next week.
The Gillibrand bill would reform the military justice system by stripping commanders of the power to decide which sexual-assault cases are prosecuted. Gillibrand has 55 votes lined up for her bill and could manage to pass it if she can find 60 votes needed to get the legislation to the floor.
McCaskill’s bill includes a host of noncontroversial reforms, including disallowing a soldier’s good military character to be considered in the defense of a sexual assault and measures to make it easier for victims to challenge unfair discharges from the service.
The Sanders bill expands veterans’ benefits in education and health care, and it would reverse a cost-of-living adjustment on military retirees’ pensions that was included in last year’s budget deal. Veterans’ groups strongly support the legislation, and some cried foul at the closed process for complicating its chances.
Republicans opposed the bill’s offset, which relied on savings from the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and wanted to offer alternatives. But among their wish list was a vote on Iran sanctions, which Reid said was not relevant to the bill and would not be allowed.
“The American Legion would very much like to have seen Reid open up the bill to amendments, to help the bill get through the process,” said Louis Celli, a legislative director with the group. “We would oppose non-germane amendments like Iran, but this partisanship and gamesmanship has got to stop so that American people can get the laws back that we need to help veterans.”