Senate sends VA, transportation bills to Obama on eve of summer recess

In a sprint to the finish line before a five-week break, the Senate on Thursday night approved bills to aid the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs and to extend federal highway funding through May.

On veterans affairs, senators voted 91 to 3 to approve legislation injecting more than $16 billion into VA to help deal with extensive treatment delays and a recent record-keeping scandal.

Republican Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.) voted no because the legislation lacked spending cuts to match the new funding.

On transportation, the Senate voted 81 to 13 in favor of an $11 billion stopgap highway measure after weeks of squabbling with the House over the scope of the legislation. The bill, which replenishes the Highway Trust Fund, will keep about 6,000 state highway and transit projects rolling through next spring.

Both measures now go to President Obama for his signature.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), held a news conference on Monday to announce they had reached a bipartisan deal to fund measures to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Associated Press)

Democrats in the Senate had attempted to shorten the timeline for the highway bill so that a long-term transportation plan would be necessary by December — before a potential midterm GOP takeover of the chamber. But the House on Thursday stripped away those changes and sent the measure back to the Senate, where Democrats acquiesced.

“It’s not because this is a better approach,” Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) said Thursday about the House version. “But it does provide the only path forward.”

Democrats believe that the federal government should continue to play a central role in transportation planning and funding. But if Republicans control both houses next year, they may seek to reshape transportation funding to reflect the philosophy known as devolution, which would allow states to raise and spend road and transit money unfettered by federal constraints.

The VA bill’s approval followed the Senate’s unanimous confirmation this week of former Procter & Gamble chief Robert McDonald to head the troubled agency. McDonald will replace Eric K. Shinseki, who resigned in May amid reports of falsified scheduling records and extensive treatment delays at VA medical centers.

The bill provides $10 billion for military veterans to seek care from non-VA health-care providers using “Veterans Choice Cards” if they have waited more than 30 days for an appointment or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA medical center.

The legislation also designates about $6.3 billion for additional medical staff and emergency leases for extra space, with the goal of increasing access to care and adding capacity, particularly in areas where veterans live far from the nearest clinic.

“This is an expensive proposition, but one that we’ve got to address,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who drafted the bill with Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). “It is absolutely imperative that we do not make veterans into political pawns.”

The measure will also allow the VA secretary to fire or demote senior executives for poor performance and misconduct, giving the employees one week to appeal the decisions with the Merit Systems Protection Board. The board would have three weeks to issue a ruling, or else the agency’s decision would stand.

Among the bill’s other provisions, it would require in-state tuition rates at public schools for certain post-9/11 veterans and would also enhance the delivery of care for troops who have experiences of sexual trauma while serving in the military. It would also extend the life of a program supporting veterans struggling with traumatic brain injuries.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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